The Happy Green Island

I met Gerry eighteen months ago, and he’s already been to the States twice to visit me. Now, after much discussion and planning, I’ve made my very first trip to Ireland. I was excited beyond excited.

Some of you may recall my England Chronicles, wherein my British friend, Anna, gave me a journal to record the minutiae “because you’ll forget the little details when you get back home.” What a great idea! I carried the same journal back across the ocean with me on this trip, and every evening faithfully recorded the day’s activities.

Wednesday, 10 September 2003
Nashville (BNA) to Chicago (ORD)
Actually, I started writing in my journal in the Chicago airport, during a long layover between Nashville and Dublin, where I found myself at the center of a good six-dozen geriatric Ireland groupies (at least three separate tour groups, judging by the matching T-shirts). American Airlines had moved my flight up from 2pm to a noonish departure, which is how I ended up with the long layover.

So I found myself at the Aer Lingus gate of the international terminal at O’Hare, in the center of a raucous group of retired folk (who knew seniors could be so frisky?), one group of which didn’t know the translation of the Gaelic phrase on their embroidered golf shirts (I asked). Sitting next to me, however, was a young college boy (a junior, from Wisconsin), going to study philosophy at UCD (University College Dublin, one of the two major universities in the city, the other being Trinity College) for a semester. And on the other side, a fella who hummed as he read. Oh, goodness.

We were all headed to the Happy Green Island together … in September. Yes, I was going to be in an airplane, over an ocean, on September 11, and good grief, a new audio/video of Osama bin Laden had just aired, with CNN gravely reporting that new “statements” from OBL tend to surface just before an Al Qaeda attack.

But there are a couple good reasons for choosing September to visit Ireland. September is one of the nicest months, climatically speaking, in Ireland. (Later I was to learn that an inordinate amount of weddings happen in Ireland in September for the same reason.) Also, the actual full-on tourist season (with the higher prices) is April–August (and I did encounter some tourism sites that were closed or operating on reduced hours, tho’ not enough to matter), so there are fewer crowds to contend with too.

With a generally mild climate year ’round—warmed by the Gulf Stream current, the temperatures on the island rarely fall below freezing—Ireland does get about 300 days of rain per year. If you do the math, that’s about five out of every six days … so I bought a rain slicker. During September, average temps are low- to mid-60s, so I took my fleece jacket … but I hardly needed either. Ireland was in the middle of that European heat wave we’d all been hearing about, and except for the last couple days of my seventeen-day stay, it never fell below 72 degrees or so.

Upon boarding around 9pm, my plan was to eat my dinner and sleep; however, my seatmate—a lovely Irishman returning home from a business trip—was a chatter. We talked about our families, our kids (which should surprise no one who knows me), the educational systems in our respective countries, books … you name it. Finally I got out my pillow and managed to shut my eyes (tho’ not actually sleep) for a couple hours. We landed around 3am (local time was 9am, of course). Since I’d gone in to work for a few hours before my flight, I was now working on twenty-two hours without sleep. So far.

Jamie’s First Travel Tip: A messenger bag (as opposed to a purse) is a handy item. You know what I’m talking about: those bags worn slung diagonally across the chest, with the business end of the bag hanging either front or back. It’s always secure, and never slips off your shoulder. I loved-loved-loved my messenger bag.

Thursday, 11 September 2003
Dublin, Co. Dublin
Landing was like something out of a movie—you know, the credits roll and the camera pans across a large metropolis seen from the air. The cloud formations were simply magnificent as we took a wide, sweeping pass from west to east over the lovely Georgian city that is Dublin. (Georgian refers to a style of architecture, characterized, for one thing, by the beautiful half-circle windows, called fanlights, over the front doors of Georgian townhomes, as well as symmetry in overall design, and ornamental cornices based on classic—Greek or Roman—forms. The style takes its name from the English kings who reigned during the period of time from 1700 to the early 1800s during which this architecture was popular: Georges I, II, III, and IV.)

The plane ended up over the Irish Sea, then curved back around over a spit of land called Howth Head (pronounce this with a long O, as in garden hoe), with its marina of boats—dozens of silver capsules packed together like anchovies in a can. Then we turned back to the airport, landing, finally, east to west.

The marina at Howth, 2003.

The marina at Howth, 2003.

Baggage claim and customs were a breeze, and Gerry was there with a grin to escort me to the Avis counter, where we picked up our flashy little grey Ford Focus. Loaded the luggage in the back, and all the while I was taking deep breaths: I was about to pull out in the center of Dublin, driving a standard transmission automobile, sitting on the right side of the car, shifting with my left hand (think about it, y’all!), driving on what amounts—to me, anyway—as the wrong side of the road!

Getting all squared away. I was sloppy traveler, but I’ve gotten better.

Getting all squared away. I was sloppy traveler, but I’ve gotten better.

The good news is I made it … but not without clipping the left curb (spelled kerb in this neck of the woods) and a few trees and bushes. The streets are narrow! Folks drive unbelievably fast (well, it seems that way when you’re a novice driver, doesn’t it)! And—heaven help me—they make liberal use of roundabouts, those handy devices that make it possible to do without traffic lights or stop signs. “Go straight,” Gerry would say as we approached one of these marvels, as if going straight on this circle of pavement with five roads intersecting it at various angles made perfect sense to me. Let me tell you, straight is a relative term when referring to a roundabout!

We went first to my B&B, just around the corner from Gerry’s house.

Jamie’s second travel tip: In Ireland, B&Bs are less expensive than hotels, and they’re absolutely everywhere. Of course, the style and degree of comfort also varies wildly—sometimes it’s just a bedroom in someone’s home, using a communal bathroom (just like home! ha!), while sometimes the owners have really gone out for the B&B trade and added on whole wings. But that’s part of the adventure, I think. We never knew what we were gonna get—except for the warm welcome and the big Irish breakfast (generally served between 8:00 and 10:30am). Those are guaranteed.

What? You don’t know about the Big Irish Breakfast? (This is my term; it’s not official.) Here’s a definition:

In the dining room, a table laden with fresh fruit, such as bananas and apples, and sometimes canned fruit … several kinds of dry cereals, always including corn flakes and always including muesli … fresh yogurt (and not the overly sweet kind we Americans insist on, but real, heavenly, tart yogurt!) … at least two kinds of fresh breads (oh, I could rhapsodize on the lovely bread!) … whole milk in a pitcher, and always juice (at least orange, but often orange and apple and cranberry or tomato). Everything is beautifully displayed and in serving dishes; there’s nothing in a carton. One is expected to help oneself to the cereals (I always started with muesli stirred into a dollop of yogurt), fruit, bread, and juice whilst the owner makes note of one’s appearance in the dining room. “Good morning! Would you like tea or coffee?” (Surprised look when I answer tea in my obviously American accent.) Tea is served in a teapot (similarly, coffee is usually served in a press), and is usually accompanied by toast. Just as you’re feeling full, the owner reappears with the query, “Would you like a cooked breakfast?” and, because you’re starting to really get in to this Big Irish Breakfast thing, you say yes. The cooked portion of your program consists of an egg (I was only once asked how I take my eggs, which, happily, was the way it was inevitably served: over-easy) surrounded by two slices of bacon, two to four links of sausage, a grilled tomato half (sometimes two), and a slice each of both black and white pudding (more about which in a moment). Bacon is a misnomer: in the States our bacon is a strip about one inch by ten inches, and it’s mostly fat; in Ireland it’s about three inches by eight inches, and is all meat. They grind their sausage much finer over there too. As for the pudding, don’t be fooled by that moniker—it’s a sausage, purchased in rounds as bratwurst would be, and sliced off an inch-and-a-half or so at a time. Black pudding is blood sausage, and white pudding is … hmmm, a different kind of sausage. Both yummy.

The Big Irish Breakfast will fortify you for any adventure, and will take you right on through until dinnertime, most days!

My Dublin B&B (Blaithin—pronounced blah-HEEN) was run by the gentleman Kevin (in his sixties, tho’ not looking it, retired for nearly twenty years after twenty-three years in the Irish Navy) and his wife, who went off to work every day (and whom I startled on Saturday morning, showing up in their dining room at 7:50: “Oh, you gave me such a shock, I t’ought I was seein’ a ghost! No one gets up d’is airly on a Saturday!”). They have two daughters, ages fourteen and seventeen, whom I neither heard nor saw except in photos. Kevin sings while he prepares your breakfast, and he comes out to the car and carries your bags in … which he did this day at around 10:30am.*

Then we walked around the corner and down the street to Gerry’s house, where I had a nice chat with his seventy-two-year-old mother, Bridie. Don’t let that number fool you, kids: she is spry, still beautiful with gorgeous gams, full of life and always smiling. While we were getting acquainted, Gerry was in the kitchen, preparing a traditional Irish fry-up (the cooked portion of the previously defined Big Irish Breakfast). This was good, because I was starved, having gotten my second wind sometime during the exciting/scary trip from the airport. (If driving on the left hand side of the road in bumper-to-bumper traffic doesn’t wake one up, nothing will.)

After this feast, the three of us drove along the Coast Road out to Howth so I could practice my driving skills. As you might expect, the homes along the Coast Road—with a fabulous view of Bull Island in the middle of Dublin Bay, as well as Howth Head off in the distance ahead—are pricey and lovely. I had to stop every five minutes and take pictures, so charmed was I by Every. Single. Thing.

Situated thirteen kilometers (about eight miles miles) northeast of Dublin, on a peninsula that forms the northern boundary of Dublin Bay, Howth is a picturesque working fishing village (although, I must be quick to add, celebrities and wealthy others own property out there, it’s that beautiful). Known for its rhododendrons, it is a favorite destination for picnickers and hikers, affording spectacular views of Dublin city and the Wicklow Mountains to the south, and Carrigeen Bay (in which lies the tiny island known as Ireland’s Eye) and, further north, Lambay, an island and noted bird sanctuary. Lambay means Lamb Island, the ay being the Danish word for island, one of the more benign relics the Vikings left behind. Other versions of the word are ey as in Dalkey (Dalk Island) and eye as in Ireland’s Eye (Ireland’s Island). It is incorrect, some locals say, to say Lambay Island: it’s redundant.

I have better photos of Ireland’s Eye but I thought this one was interesting because you can see Lambay in the distance.

I have better photos of Ireland’s Eye but I thought this one was interesting because you can see Lambay in the distance.

The road ends quite literally at Howth Head, a massive cliff. And the village is charming, buildings painted in pastels and jewel tones, a pub or two, the marina and a jetty stretching far out into the ocean.

Looking back at Howth village from the marina.

Looking back at Howth village from the marina.

Walking along the jetty. The wind was fierce.

Walking along the jetty. The wind was fierce.

Just a few hours earlier, I’d been looking at this very marina (and knew what I was looking at, too, I’d spent so many hours poring over the map). We got out and walked atop the jetty in a strong ocean breeze, just strolling, with ice cream cones. (In every town or village, you’ll see a store—a grocery, a pharmacy, a newsstand, a convenience store, perhaps—with a four-foot-tall plastic ice cream cone standing out front, like the old cigar-store Indians; inside, the most delicious ice cream!)

Back at Gerry’s, I (ahem) took a nap while simultaneously watching a DVD of Bend It Like Beckham. Delightful movie. (No, really! It was!) Later we had delicious Indian takeout … and by then I was fading fast, it being nearly 10pm local time. A brisk walk back to my B&B to journal and write postcards did me in. Final score for me: thirty-six hours, no sleep.

*Note: Kevin retired completely not too long ago, and the home is now a private one.

A note about the photos: In 2003 I was using a 1970s-era Canon F-1. Portable digital cameras had been introduced in the mid-1990s but I couldn’t justify the cost when I had a wonderful professional-grade camera that took beautiful photographs on film. However, with film you snap and hope you got a good image; I didn’t know what image I’d captured until long after I’d returned home. Affordable technology to convert film to .jpg was also new then, so the photos you’ve seen and will see are of that in-between era. By the time of my next trip across the Pond, I’d gone digital.

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One thought on “The Happy Green Island

  1. Pingback: HoHo (Hop On, Hop Off) Dublin (1/2) | Wanderlustful

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