Planning a Trip to Ireland? I’ve Made All the Touristy Mistakes So You Don’t Have To!

I bet you’re thinking Hasn’t Jamie already written a series of posts on planning a trip to Ireland? Well, yes, I have.*

But that was nearly four years ago. I’ve written more since then. So I’ve collected and categorized and linked every other article about traveling in Ireland right here. One stop. Not the travelogues; you’re on your own there. 🙂

That said, everything in that initial series is still valid and important, so you should still start with them:

Travel Daydreams (The best part is the planning.)

Getting the Backstory (Read about it!)

More Backstory. With Accents. (Or watch some movies.)

DIY Vacation (That is, no tour buses for me.)

Narrowing It Down (Plan a trip for your interests.)

Some Sightseeing Ideas (Don’t miss!)

“Official” Tourism (Get help here!)

Eating, Drinking … and Music (Ya gotta do it.)

Let’s Go Shopping (Oh, yes, let’s do!)

Finding the Magic (My favorite chapter.)

Last Thoughts (Lots of little tips, collected.)

But as noted, I’ve written other articles that drill down a little more (driving on the left side, for example), or answer questions you may not have known you had (where or how to get distilled water, for example). There are tips and things I learned sprinkled throughout the stories of my trips, too (the travelogues), but you probably don’t have time to read all that—so I’ve mentioned the most salient points herein. I’ve added a few bits of wisdom too.

And in the last few weeks, three friends have asked me about planning their trips to Ireland … so it’s time to pull it all together.

Planning Your Trip

Let’s start here: when to go, when not to go. You’ve probably heard that it rains a lot in Ireland, and you’re probably concerned. But don’t be. Pack a little rain hat (or buy one after you get there), and go. No, the number of tourists concern me more than the number of raindrops! So I like to go during the “off” season.

In Ireland tourist season starts in April and runs through August. This means a lot more tour buses on the road, longer lines, and so on. Also consider that once it begins to warm up outside, some older historic hotels might be a little stuffy inside, because they don’t have air conditioning. Mind, summer temps in Ireland will probably only reach mid to high 70s (Farenheit)—and outside that’s pleasant—but an un–air-conditioned hotel might feel hot to a Yank accustomed to a/c everything. So it’s something to consider. And check on.

My favorite months? September and October. Tourism has dropped off and the weather is spectacular.

I haven’t been paying much attention to news on visas and passports, but it would be wise for you to look into that a few months before your planned departure. Check with your airlines about baggage weight and carryons too (for example, you may not be able to carry a laptop onto an international flight these days).

There are other items to consider. For example, if I’m asked, I always say Everything takes longer than you think. Getting from Point A to Point B takes longer than you think. The line to get in takes longer than you think. The meal takes longer than you think. My advice is to slow down and don’t cram your schedule. The corollary to this is, Do you want to spend your precious vacation time driving—or doing? There’s so much to see! I get that. But if you’ve only got a week, I would recommend you pick a region and stay in it, rather driving 200 miles one way to see one sight. There are beautiful sea views, old mansions, ancient stone circles and sacred sites, and unusual geography everywhere in Ireland. Trust me. And often the less well-known sites are better.

However—and this is important—your trip is your trip. You may like driving more than I do. You may walk faster than me. Your trip is your trip—plan the one that you want to take.

Getting There and Back

No discussion of purchasing flights here. I’m talking about the actual slog of moving across multiple time zones. It’s hard on a body, y’all.

Many flights from the States are overnighters—arriving in Dublin the next morning, particularly if you fly through Chicago, Boston, New York, Newark, or Washington DC. So plan some low-impact activities—a massage, say, or a walk on the beach or around the neighborhood where your hotel is situated—so you can ease into your new time zone when you land. Here are lots more tips about dealing with jet-lag. If you’re visiting for a special reason—maybe you’re attending a wedding?—arrive a few days early so you can slough off jet-lag and fully enjoy the event. A day-of-arrival massage, I’ve found, is a must for me; Gerry has a cat-nap while I’m gone.

Americans flying home from Dublin for the first time may be surprised to discover that they pass through customs in Dublinbefore they ever get on the plane. This is so convenient, as we were recently reminded when my husband returned home from Dublin through London. When he arrived in Chicago, he had to—

  • get off the plane and collect his luggage
  • pass through US Customs
  • change terminals and go though security again
  • check in his baggage again

—which means one needs a lengthy layover, something the airlines seem to ignore. If there’s even a short delay (and when is that ever the case?), you could miss your connection.

Of course, Customs in Dublin adds to the time you need to allow in the airport on departure day. We like a relaxed, stress-free departure day, and here are some tips for that: Winding Down, At Last. Hint: turn in the car the day before you leave.

Getting Around While You’re There

Speaking of driving, Let’s Talk About Driving on the Wrong Side. This is the question I get asked more than any other. Is it hard? Is it scary? When I answer this question, I say: No, it’s not hard at all—because everyone else is driving on the left too.

There are other ways to get around if you prefer not to drive: bus, cab, hired car, Uber, train, DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit), LUAS (tram/light rail). This link gives you bus, cab, and car options, with approximate costs. Look here for information on DART and Irish Rail options; here for LUAS.

I may have discussed this elsewhere—in fact I’m sure I have—but you can bring your portable GPS from home more cheaply than what you’ll pay to have one in your rental car, even after you purchase the map chip for Ireland and the UK. (Be aware that the GPS tends to choose direct routes, which in Ireland might mean an unpaved one-lane. You’ve been warned.) I know you all have smart phones now, but sometimes reception is slow or nonexistent. If you like a little adventure, great! If you don’t, plan on a backup: whip into a gas station or bookstore and pick up a detailed map book. There are planty of opportunities to be lost in Ireland; you’ll be glad you’ve got all the bases covered.

Here’s another option: private tours. I wouldn’t pay for a place I could easily get to and easily circumnavigate. But as I said in this post, Gerry and I tried to guide ourselves through Howth, in a car (with stops), and didn’t see much, so I have to say I think a tour guide would be a good investment. The links in this article are specifically about Howth, but these guides offer many other tours. (Here’s another corporate tour outfit based in Dublin.)

A Brief Aside About Lodging

A quick reminder that while B&Bs are often expensive in the US, they can be a relatively affordable alternative to a hotel in Ireland. And don’t forget Airbnb, which really opens up the opportunity to stay in a home—especially in a city like Dublin. We’ve stayed in B&Bs and hotels, and of the latter we’ve stayed in high end and (ahem) low end. During our 3-week honeymoon trip we experienced the entire range, and at the end of that trip I wrote up a Hotel Comparison, which may be of interest.

Quick Power Tips

What is VAT?

Tax—and as a non-EU resident, you can get a VAT refund on some goods. In fact, with the electronic system in place since 2012, you are never charged VAT at all, but are issued a card (by any retailer on the system), which is scanned every time you make a purchase. You register the card online at some point during your trip. However, you still must “check out” of the country, by visiting the Horizon electronic kiosk at the airport or from your own computer when you get home. If you fail to report the purchases added to the card within the specified period, all the VAT you avoided will suddenly appear on your credit card bill. Ooops!

Should I pay in euros or dollars?

You may be offered this option when paying with a card. Choose euros.

How do I keep everything charged up on a long trip?

First, purchase an electric plug with multiple USB slots to facilitate charging in airports, because what’s provided is never enough. I’ve also purchased multiple adapters—one each for camera battery, laptop, Kindle, and CPAP. No one has to share. And I have a good-sized zipper bag that all cords, chargers, and adaptors live in; when I’m packing, I grab and go.

I travel with a CPAP and have trouble finding distilled water in Ireland.

Me too. Bottom line? Things are just different, especially with retail. Where you buy certain things. Where you can’t buy things that are easily available in the US. Like distilled water. 89 cents a gallon in the US; 17 euro for a half gallon. Here’s help.

Why does my hair look like crap?

Because the water’s hard. Here’s what to do about it. You’ll never have a bad hair day again. 🙂

I may have over-shopped. Help?

Many retailers in Ireland are well equipped to ship your stuff home for you. Take advantage of it. Don’t carry something around your whole trip or, worse, forego it because you don’t have room in your luggage.

Doing the Special Things

Forget the touristy stuff; you don’t need it! And you really don’t need to kiss the Blarney Stone (ick). Incline your thoughts this way instead: Ireland has a long and proud (and occasionally tragic) history, as I’ve noted before. I cannot stress enough that it will enhance your experience to have a basic awareness of Irish history. Even if you just read Wikipedia. Even if history really isn’t your thing.

Culture is important too. Here are some miscellaneous articles about the “Irish way.” If you want to drill down, check the book list here.

That said, your trip is your trip! So plan to do the things that are meaningful and special to you, whatever they are. Love a junk shop? Afternoon tea? Indulge! Look for the magic. Here are three more miscellaneous articles that might be of interest.

Are you bookish? Ireland is famous for its writers, and if you love books, it’s a great place to soak up the literary culture (and to buy books—there’s a bookstore in every town). Here are some posts that might be of interest.

And that’s it, friends! Hope this planning page has been helpful. I’ll update it as I write more.

(*You have been able to access the first post by clicking Start Here in the menu above and then looking for “How to Plan Your Trip to Ireland.” And you still can. This page will be the Start Here link from now on.)



In December, Everything Came to a Head

We’ve had a lot going on here. My workload’s been heavy (that’s good, actually) but with deadlines that moved up and down my production schedule (publishers and authors sometimes shuffle things around), which caused bottlenecks and logjams that raised my stress level. (In fact, my young whippersnapper doctor put me on a low-dose blood pressure medicine late in the year. But that’s another story entirely.)

In September we learned our beloved cat, Bean (that’s her photo at the top of this blog), was sick—probably lymphoma, which is incurable, but we continued to try various meds and nutrition changes, as well as an ultrasound and needle biopsy on the sixth of December. She was weakening, and my heart was breaking.

In October our annual termite inspection yield the information that our master bathroom floor might fall through, so while we wrangled with the insurance company, we decamped to the upstairs bathroom for our daily ablutions. It took weeks to get the paperwork settled, and work finally began on December fifth. There was dust everywhere. Thank goodness we hadn’t had time to put out Christmas decorations, or they’d have been dusty too.

In November, finally, some good news: my son and his fiancée married. Actually, that was a really special day amidst a month of growing strain. I was working night and day to dismantle my logjam. Bean needed meds and you try giving a cat a pill. It was just … a crazy time. Not good, not bad, but a lot.

Happy couple a few days later: Thanksgiving at our place.

And then, on December eighth, we got a call from Dublin in the very early morning that we’d been worried would come. Gerry’s eighty-seven-year-old mother had been in and out of the hospital all year. Her body wasn’t well but her mind was still just as sharp as a tack. Since Gerry had married me and returned with me to the United States in late 2015, his younger brother, Richie, and Richie’s wife, Isolde, had taken on the responsibility of keeping an eye on Bridie. It hadn’t been an easy year for them either.

The call was from Richie: Bridie had gone to the hospital that morning. The question had already been asked (“She has a son in America—should we call him home?”) but the answer we received at 5am was “Not yet. Let’s wait and see.” So I went off to my doctor for my annual physical at 8am and, of course, my blood pressure was through the roof—I left with a prescription for the low-dose bp meds, madder than a wet hen about it too. Which did nothing to lower my bp.

• • •

(Here’s a tip about that. In those crazy early morning hours, I’d had a cup of tea and a piece of toast, forgetting that they’d take blood at my physical. By the time I got back to the clinic for the bloodwork, it was after Christmas and my blood sugar was up too. A nurse friend of mine rolled her eyes at me, reminded me that stress also causes blood sugar to rise, and said, “Jamie, don’t ever schedule a physical during the holidays!” And I won’t.)

• • •

            By the time I got home, though, “Wait and see” had become “Come home now.” Gerry had already made arrangements with our phone carrier for an international plan, and we came up to the office and sat down at our dueling computers and started looking for a flight for him. I would not be going with him. (Cats, meds, dog, deadlines, and so on.)

Back in the day—you know, when America was great and all that—the airlines offered a sympathy discount for hardship cases like final illnesses and funerals, but no more. We were shocked at the cost of a round trip flight from Nashville to Dublin: the cheapest was British Airways at $3135. It was enough to make us weak in the knees. So we called them. It never hurts to ask, right?

Welp … nope. No family emergency discount. However, the clerk took pity on us and gave us a tip, which I’m passing to you in case you don’t already know it.

• • •

When you are buying tix online, you’ll be asked to choose if you just want the flight, or if you want flight+car or flight+hotel or flight+car+hotel. Let’s say you choose flight+car. You print out a little voucher for a good rate at the car rental place. You don’t pay for it then, you just print the voucher. Magically (!) your flight cost is reduced by half. No joke: the cost went to $1572. The clerk said, “When you reach your destination, just drop by the Hertz window and tell them your plans have changed.”

• • •

            And so he did. Thanks, BA.

I didn’t work much that day. I just helped Gerry gather the things he needed to pack for a two-week stay. (I am proud of the fact that I had stashed 50 euro in bills leftover from the last trip—and several one- and two-euro coins—so Gerry didn’t have to fly off without cash other than dollars.) We were both rattled. And that afternoon I drove my husband to Nashville and put him on a plane to Dublin in the hopes he could see his mother before she parted from this world.

I came home and started sending emails to Gerry’s former work colleagues and other friends of ours, to let them know Gerry would be in Dublin and why. I let our family know. I let our Facebook friends know. I scribbled lists of things I needed to do. I went up and down the stairs letting the dog outside—she stands in the hall and does this low growl until she has your attention—gaining a new appreciation for just how much time Gerry spends letting Suzy out to pee. 🙂

Bridie died Friday just before midnight Dublin time (that would be 6pm our time). Gerry was waiting to board his flight in Chicago, having spoken with her on the phone a little earlier. One of the nieces sent me an electronic message.

Gerry arrived in Dublin in late afternoon on Saturday, precisely twenty-four hours after he’d departed Nashville, and Richie and Isolde took him home and fed him breakfast for supper and put him to bed. The funeral was scheduled for Wednesday. He spent the rest of his time in Dublin emptying the house, speaking with the solicitor, speaking with the realtor, speaking with the bank, and so on. Richie was right there by his side. It was exhausting.

Here at home, the rest of us tottered on. The diuetic I’d been prescribed for the blood pressure made me feel like I’d been run over by a truck. I could barely climb the stairs I felt so fatigued. Also low-grade nausea. But. Just. So. Exhausted. Aaaaagh. (Fortunately it only lasted for a few days.)

Suzy wasn’t getting walked, and she missed her guy. The two of us were walking wounded. On Facebook I posted Opportunity of a lifetime! Take a stroll around the block with the world’s sweetest dog! but got no takers. December is a really busy month for everyone.

The construction in the bathroom continued, which meant our backyard gate was often open. Gerry’s very cautious/aware about these things, but one morning I let her out to do her business, failing, while I was on the phone informing the dentist that Gerry would not make his appointment on Wednesday, to notice that the gate was open… and when I called for her, she was gone. I called and called: Suzy! Suzy!


So instead, I called for Spot the cat, using his mealtime call: SPIT-Spot! SPIT-Spot! He responds very well to it. So does Suzy. So what to my wondering eyes should appear but a seventy-pound yellow Lab who never misses a meal. She was on the driveway between the front yard and the back yard. Came on the run.

I always checked the gate situation after that. We’d had enough trouble.

Yes, Suzy finally took me for a walk today (dragged me around the block). That’s a plastic cup I scooped out of the gutter when I realized I’d forgotten a poop bag. Fortunately I didn’t need to use it.

Those two weeks seemed like two months. I had to let go of a lot of my personal expectations—put up a Christmas tree, decorate, send Christmas cards—and reached a peace with myself. I told myself I’d get to some of it when I could, but for the moment, I just tended to my work and my pets and sat in the hot tub, and knew that all of us would be happy to see Gerry on the other end. I wrapped one present a day and stacked them on the piano.

When you don’t have a tree, the Christmas Piano will do.

I started checking flight status early and learned that Gerry’s plane out of London Heathrow was delayed. His Chicago flight was due in Nashville at 10pm … but who knew? I’ve been on more than one flight that was held for someone making a tight connection, so I was hoping for that. I checked the flight roster—there was one more flight out of Chicago that night. So I went and brewed a pot of tea.

Ultimately, the fully boarded flight out of London was delayed by an hour and 45 minutes. Why? Because somehow someone had been allowed to board the plane to Chicago whose “paperwork was inadequate to enter the US.” That person was removed from the plane, of course, but the main delay was removing that person’s luggage from the plane. How does that even happen? I still don’t have an answer.

• • •

            But here’s a third tip: If you are flying from Ireland to the US and you have a choice, use a flight that goes directly to the US (Chicago, Boston, NY, DC, Newark, Charlotte, Atlanta … probably others). This allows you to pass customs in Dublin before you ever board a plane. It’s a hassle, you have to be there even earlier than normal, but it’s much less painful than landing in the international terminal, going to baggage claim to collect your luggage, passing through customs, then changing terminals, re-checking your luggage, passing through security, and boarding the next plane.

• • •

            Nonetheless, we took the tickets we could get two weeks ago, and this is what Gerry had to do. There was one last flight to BNA from ORD that night and British Airways took care of booking him on it while he was still in the air. So he collected two pieces of luggage, took them through customs, found his gate, checked the luggage again. As he was boarding for BNA, he got a text from the airlines: “Ooops, sorry, one of your bags didn’t get on the plane. It will follow on the first flight in the morning.” (We’re still puzzled by this. He was there in plenty of time for this flight. He checked them both simultaneously. But one didn’t make it? Why?)

The flight landed at its advertised arrival time of 11:20pm. I was sitting in the huge new park-and-wait and had been since 10pm. Waiting. Tired. Gerry called and said “Don’t come to the terminal until I have my luggage.” So I waited and waited and waited … until 12:30am. Why? Because Gerry had to prove who he was (him with the oops email from the airlines!) and document every leg of his trip, before anyone at the airlines would even agree to say they knew where his missing luggage was! And more paperwork! And me sitting in the park-and-wait having these fantasies about hugging my husband close when I finally laid eyes on him.

“I’M COMING TO GET YOU NOW,” I texted in all caps. “THIS IS RIDICULOUS.”

You would think that the Nashville airport would be reasonably quiet and calm at 1am. But if it’s two days before Christmas, you would be wrong.

Side note on the new arrivals lanes at BNA: They suck. In years past we had a simpler system, a thing of beauty, really, but sometime in the last couple years, airport expansion construction eliminated the ten-minute pull-in parking for loading arrivals and left us with three lanes plus a fourth separated by sidewalk, and it’s insanity because people don’t know how to use it. Drivers are stupid, stopping in the middle two lanes to load their people, thus holding up the entire process, rather than pulling to the two available curbs (lanes 1 and 4) to load, leaving lanes 2 and 3 for through-traffic.

By the time I decided to drive to the terminal, these lanes were backed up well past the curved arrivals entrance (if you know BNA, you know what I mean). And it was raining. When I pulled to the curb, Gerry was banging on the trunk, waiting for me to pop it. He had the suitcase in the trunk before I was out of the car. “This is madness!” I shouted over the roar. No tender hug. “Take me home now!” he shouted back.

• • •

Future tip for airport pickups (especially at holidays): pick up your beloved arrival at departures. Traffic in these lanes is moving quickly, so everything’s more relaxed. In Nashville departures are up one level from baggage claim, and you’re tired and dragging luggage, but pickup goes a lot more smoothly, I’m told.

• • •

            We fell into bed around 1:30am. Gerry awoke at 5am, still on Dublin time. I slept until 6:45am (late for me). We have had breakfast. We are, otherwise, an advertisement for the Walking Dead. But he’s home, and we’re a little travel-wiser. Merry Christmas!

Guide Books, Map Books, and a Tourism Rant

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in September 2012.

Back before I had even a hope of traveling to Ireland, I bought a travel guidebook for the country. A gal can dream, can’t she?

I think I’ve experimented with every brand of guidebook available, but my favorites are the DK (Dorling Kindersley Publishing) Eyewitness Travel Guides. I have just always liked a book with pictures, and these have full-color photos, illustrations, detail maps, and lots more. My Ireland ETG is a little beat up, with Post-It markers, receipts, loose hand-written directions, dried flowers, and photographs stuffed into the pages. It really is just a souvenir at this point, since it’s more than ten years out of date.

DK has another travel guide solution that you might find useful. Called Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides, these much-smaller books are intended for those who may not have much time for sightseeing.

(I’m being nice here. These books smack a bit too much of getting on a tour bus and being shown what you should see and told what you should know, and how long you have to do it. I am not that person. I like a little more adventure. I like being a little lost. On the other hand, one wouldn’t go to Paris without stopping by the Eiffel Tower, right? And I assure you, that tower is number one on the Paris Top Ten list; in fact, it’s the number one tourist destination in the world. So these lists have a purpose; they can serve as a jumping off place. But they are no substitution at all for wandering, delightfully half-lost, in a foreign city.)

The Top Ten books start with the ten most important destinations in a particular city (again: bear in mind, these will be highly trafficked tourist destinations … but there’s a reason for it: these sites are special). Then each of the ten destinations are broken down into ten features, to be sure you don’t miss what makes the site exceptional.

For example, Dublin’s top ten destinations are:

1. Trinity College
2. National Museum of Ireland
3. National Gallery
4. Dublin Castle
5. Temple Bar
6. Christ Church Cathedral
7. St. Patrick’s Cathedral
8. Guinness Storehouse
9. Kilmainham Gaol and Kilmainham Hospital
10. Phoenix Park

There’s a lot more than this, of course (top ten pubs, performing arts venues, shopping areas, and so on)—but now that you know where to go, you’ll need one more book on your trip.

The Irishman and I have found a detailed road map to be indispensible, because in Ireland there are a lot of what I call “back roads” (and what William Least Heat-Moon called Blue Highways). And by detailed, I mean the kind of map on which one inch equals just three miles. That’s a rather thick book of maps. You’d have to go to a bookstore here to get something like that, but in Ireland you can pick them up at any petrol station. Even the tiniest historic spot was marked on this map; it had the national roads, the regional roads, and even the unnamed roads—and we could literally tell what curve of what road we were on at any given time. It proved invaluable.

So. You’re ready. Buy a ticket and get started. I’ll see you there … !

All Their Wars Are Merry and All Their Songs Are Sad*

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in March 2011.

Words—and the way they are pronounced—can be such funny things. And people are often passionately attached to their own interpretation, even if they’re … well … wrong. Like the pronunciation of Van Gogh. (Look it up; you may be surprised.)

The Irishman and I have done some pleasant business with a company called Celtic Marble and Granite right here in (ahem) the geographical center of the state. The storefront downtown is this fantastical, swirling, hippie-looking façade and I just love it, love going inside and running my hands over the samples of gorgeous stone. The business is owned by the Fretwells; she’s English, he’s Welsh (very, very Welsh).

Which doesn’t really matter, but I was out driving one day and remembered I needed to call them about our current project. I didn’t have the number, so I called information and asked for Celtic Marble and Granite. I pronounced it “KELL-tick.” Wouldn’t you? It never crossed my mind to pronounce it any other way.

The operator told me there is no such number.

Now … I knew there was. 🙂 So I smiled and said: “Oh, of course there is! I do business with them! C-E-L-T-I-C (see-ee-ell-tee-eye-see).”

Long pause. “You mean SELL-tick, then.”

Hahahahahahahhaa. My mistake was that I didn’t get it at first: I was wrong, she needed me to know that. But that just flew right over my head. “No, it’s KELL-tick,” I said without thinking. I didn’t really mean to argue with her, I just didn’t understand I wasn’t playing the appropriate role. 🙂 It made her mad, I could tell. (After the fact. Sorry, BellSouth operator lady! Really!)

But what about the Boston Celtics? you might well ask. Or, if you’re Irish: But what about the Glasgow (Scotland) Celtic? Excellent questions. I was trying, some time ago, to locate a succinct explanation of the origins of the Gaelic language, a language that, written, looks absolutely nothing like how it sounds (would you have guessed the word taoiseach—meaning prime minister, as in “Bertie Ahern, at age forty-five, was Ireland’s youngest ever taoiseach”—would be pronounced “TEE-shock”? Neither would I), when I stumbled upon this, which explains the situation: What is a Celt and who are the Glasgow Celtics?

… It is interesting to note that when the British Empire was distinguishing itself as better and separate from the rest of humanity, it was decided that British Latin should have different pronunciation from other spoken Latin. Therefore, one of these distinguishing pronunciational differences was to make many of the previously hard ‘k’ sounds move to a soft ‘s’ sound, hence the Glasgow and Boston Celtics. It is the view of many today that this soft ‘c’ pronunciation should be reserved for sports teams since there is obviously nothing to link them with the original noble savagery and furor associated with the Celts.

And that, I believe, is the final word on that! Here’s wishing you a Celtic-flavored Paddy’s Day, friends. But stay away from that green beer.

(*From “The Ballad of the White Horse” by G. K. Chesterton: “For the great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad, for all their wars are merry …”)

They Speak English, Don’t They?

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in October 2012.

When you’re planning your first trip to Ireland—excitedly, it’s something you’ve dreamed of for decades—the one thing you don’t think is Oh, and I’d better pick up a translation dictionary. Because they speak English over there.

Don’t they?

Um, yes, of course they do.  But you may find yourself doing the smile-and-nod (which is universal sign language for “I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but … OK”) more often than you’d expect.

(Warning: what follows is not for the sensitively eared.)

Like the time we had a flat tire in Tralee and were directed to Tony O’Donoghue’s Tyre Service. As the driver of the car, I marched in and indicated my need for a new tire to the proprietor, who understood me just fine. (They get a lot of American television over there and are used to—and imitate with glee—our accent.) Tony then replied at length. I smiled and nodded, and as Tony walked away, the Irishman murmured, “I’ll bet you didn’t understand a word of that.” I hadn’t. Not a word. And I’d been trying. “It’s a very thick Kerry accent,” he said. “I didn’t catch everything either.”

It’s interesting, the variety of regional accents one encounters in a country the size of Indiana. (To be fair, I can distinguish a Southern accent on a state-by-state basis, though most non-Southerners would probably hear them as all the same.) And not just accents—the vernacular changes too. When I was seeking editorial help from the Irishman (a Dubliner) for a novel set in Ireland, I had to answer characterization questions first: “Who are the speakers, where are they from? Dublin? The west? Cork? Those Corkmen”—a shake of the head—“have a language all their own. Are they working class or upper class?”

One thing visiting Americans certainly find disconcerting is the use of what we might delicately call profanity, but which are merely mild exclamations or slang completely unrelated to … well, what we Yanks think we hear. Words like feck or arse are somewhat shocking to our Puritan ears, though I am assured those Irish nuns have heard this and more (for example, Dubliners are fond of bluddy hell). It’s just not the same, I’m told. (Don’t believe me? Watch this well-received performance by Fascinating Aïda, complete with subtitles.)

It does get easier when you converse with a native-speaker every day. But when I am with the fam and everyone’s talking at once … I just smile and nod.

My Favorite Book (This Year)

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in January 2014.

I read thirty-three* books for pleasure in 2012—and at the end of the year I boiled it all down to One Favorite Book, difficult though that was. I read fifty-four in 2013, and most of them were titles I’d happily recommend, for one reason or another.

I blogged about some—Life After LifeThe Best of YouthThe Round HouseAfter Visiting FriendsLong Time, No SeeFresh Off the BoatNow & ThenThe Interestings—and have planned posts on a few more, including that orgy of classic Irish literature in which I indulged.

But the one favorite book seemed like a good idea then and it still seems like a good idea, so here it is—my favorite book of 2013. I knew the minute I closed the cover this one would be my choice; that was last summer, and as much as I loved Life After Life, I never wavered.

My favorite book last year was Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. I bought my copy in Ireland in May, because I didn’t want to wait for it to release here, so eager was I for this book.

The Irish cover. No, I don’t get it, either.

You know by now that I read all sorts of titles and genres, but I don’t mind declaring I am an unabashed lover of literary fiction. Lately it’s been hip to diss lit-fic, to sigh and say, Pretty writing’s all well and good but I want a great story!—even authors who should know better have said things like this—but don’t bring that trash talk around me, please. TransAtlantic is all about the story.

Three of them, in fact. All true.

In 1919, two young aviators from the recently ended World War hurry to pilot the first nonstop transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to the west of Ireland. Alcock and Brown carry with them a batch of specially postmarked letters—one which will not be opened for almost a hundred years. The second narrative is set in 1845, when Frederick Douglass spent two years in Ireland to promote the abolitionist cause, raise funds, and avoid recapture by his former owner. Finally we read about U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s efforts (with others) to negotiate the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which would bring peace, at last, to Northern Ireland.

The stories are seemingly unrelated; each is lovely and complete. Together they begin to show the complex public relationship between the United States and Ireland. And it wasn’t until I was well into the 1998 story that I began to discern the connections between them. Oh, yes, there’s the obvious (the trips back and forth across the Atlantic) as well as the symbolic (a black man asking the Irish for money to gain freedom) … and then there’s the sublime.

There’s a fourth story, as it turns out—completely fictional—which creates the novel and shows the myriad private human connections between Ireland and America. And as this story stepped out of the historical narrative where it had been hiding in plain sight, it quite simply took my breath away.

Author Column McCann made his own transatlantic crossing at age twenty-one, a Dubliner who’d been a reporter for the Irish Press. His intent, the Guardian says, was “to write ‘the great Irish-American novel.’” That reviewer believes McCann’s previous book—2009’s Let the Great World Spin, which sold a million copies and won the National Book award—might well be it.

Not a bad start 🙂 but TransAtlantic deserves consideration too. Some twenty-six years after his arrival, McCann’s still on this side of the Atlantic, but with his very Irish sensibilities intact.

I recognized every bit of the present-day Dublin he describes in the last half of the book. (History is important: “So polite and poised, a southern accent laced with some London, all our troubles in one voice.”) The language, the writing, is exquisite. The details break your heart; tension builds subtly. And you really have to read to the very last lines for the payoff, which is an unexpected act of human grace in eight perfect sentences that took me utterly by surprise and left me stunned and weeping. Two days later I tried to tell a friend about it, tried to read aloud those last eight gorgeous lines, and cried again.

“We seldom know what echo our actions will find,” McCann writes, “but our stories will almost certainly outlast us.” This story was enormously satisfying. Brilliant, in fact. It filled me up. My favorite book in 2013.

* I was way off my yearly average of 40–45, but my health wasn’t good and I spent a lot of time sleeping rather than reading.

The Great Irish Lit Wallow

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in March 2013.

What is it about the Irish? That they are a nation of storytellers seems to be borne out the minute you get in a cab in Dublin (though it probably helps that you have an American accent), but the fact is, whether it’s a pub culture that encourages the art of the story well told, a history of political strife retold and retold in oral histories, a well-established cultural mythology, or something else entirely, you know many Irish writers because you read them in school: William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett …*

But there are others you should know about.

I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Ireland, and I believe with all my heart that one way to understand a country or a culture** is to read its literature.*** So a couple years ago I wandered around Dublin from bookstore to bookstore with a list in my hand, bought a bunch of books, and proceeded to read many of them in 2013–14.

The Gathering / Anne Enright
Langrishe, Go Down / Aidan Higgins
Good Behaviour / Molly Keane
TransAtlantic / Colum McCann
The Land of Spices / Kate O’Brien
After the Rising / Orna Ross
The Spinning Heart / Donal Ryan
The Blackwater Lightship / Colm Tóibín

Here’s a brief look at them:

The Gathering
A grown woman, Veronica, attends the wake of her beloved brother Liam (who has committed suicide) and reflects on her family’s troubled history to make sense of the present. Enright reviews Dublin life in the 1920s through the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s as well as the current present, casting an acid eye on how Catholicism affected men, women (Veronica’s mother experienced nineteen pregnancies, and it broke her body and mind), and families in those decades.

Daddy grew up in the west—he always knew the right thing to do. He had beautiful manners. Which, if you ask me, was mostly a question of saying nothing, to anyone, ever. ‘Hello, are you well’, ‘Goodbye now, take care’, the whole human business had to be ritualized. ‘I’m sorry for your trouble’, ‘Put that money away now’, ‘That’s a lovely bit of ham’, ‘It is your noble call’. It bored me to tears, actually: all that control.

I’ve experienced enough of Dubliners to have recognized what I know in the rhythm of Enright’s dialogue. The last thirty pages are just stunning, and very satisfying. There’s a good reason this book won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. (I transcribed this bit from page 42 of a paperback published in 2008 by Vintage–Random House UK.)

Langrishe, Go Down
In the late 1930s, three reclusive middle-aged spinster sisters live on their run-down family estate in Ireland. I’ve been reading a lot of lit from this period between the two wars; the Celtic Tiger is not even a gleam in anyone’s eye, and life is just plain hard. Enter a pompous German graduate student who rents lodging from the women—and one of the sisters embarks on a passionate affair with him, until she realizes he cares nothing for her.

The first chapter was a lovely read but then it was so, so bleak, so sad, grim. In addition, the novel—which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1967 and was turned into a movie with screenplay by Harold Pinter. Harold Pinter, Nobel Prize–winner!—is just difficult: experimental literature that was probably over my head (or, perhaps, simply read at the wrong time). I wanted to love it but I just couldn’t.

Good Behaviour
By the time I got to Good Behaviour, I was in the middle of deadlines and not taking a lot of time to make notes, but I’ll tell you this: it’s set in the 1920s among the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy—which is to say the formerly wealthy Protestants of English heritage who had once been overlords. The New York Review of Books said:

After the treaty, some stormed out shouting at the receding Wicklow Hills. Those who stayed on resorted to irony; for centuries they had been a caste in decline on a poor island-within-an-island in Britain’s oldest colony. They stuck to their wild passions for huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, the turf, drink, and, above all, genealogy, as the damp rose in their fine but decaying houses. Debts and mortgages gathered around them, but they had long settled for not knowing history socially except when it presented itself in the form of family trees (sometimes done in tapestry) going back to the Normans, the Elizabethans, or even to Charlemagne. The snobbery approached, as Stendhal would have said, the Sublime.

This, then, is a book of manners, particularly about the concern for good ones, in the face of horrible, unspeakable events. It is hilarious. Also sad, and made me a little squeamish at times—which, as far as I’m concerned, is the mark of a great book. Published in 1981, Good Behaviour was shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize.

I’ve written about Colum McCann’s fabulous book already, so I’ll direct you there.

The Land of Spices
Published in 1941 but set in 1905–1914 Limerick, this novel by one of Ireland’s most famous writers is considered a classic. The action happens almost completely within the walls of a girls’ convent school, with two protagonists—the Mother Superior and a young student. This may not sound like much, but the characters draw you in quickly and then in the last quarter of the book—bam! bam!—it punches you right in the gut, twice. It’s an allegory, really, of the “new” Ireland—the Republic—rising up and leaving the old attitudes (particularly about women) behind.

In the story, a girl of sixteen, a scholar from an impoverished family, has won a scholarship to enter college. Her grandmother, who has been supporting the family, doesn’t believe in the “education of women” and announces that the girl will decline the prize. The confrontation between this woman and the Mother Superior at the convent school is worth the price of the book. It’s not my normal fare, but I seriously loved it.

After the Rising (originally published by Penguin Ireland as Lover’s Hollow)
The Irish Civil War—which followed the war of independence from England that established the Irish Free State—is also called the War of the Brothers, because families were horribly and tragically divided, some supporting the Republicans (who wanted to be completely free from England) and some supporting the Free Staters. The Irishman tells me that—less than a hundred years later—feelings about this war are still very raw. (And in fact, I asked him so many questions he soon mailed me a history book.)

The story—set in a small village in County Wexford—bounces between present and past; the cover copy tells us …

When Jo Devereux returns to Ireland after an absence of twenty years, the last person she expects to meet at her mother’s funeral is Rory O’Donovan. The bitter conflict between her family and his, full of secrets and silences, was the one constant of Jo’s childhood. … [She] … embarks on a quest, uncovering astonishing truths about her mother and grandmother and women’s role in the conflict known as “The War of The Brothers”, the Irish Civil War of 1922. And also about a killing with consequences that have ricocheted through four generations.

I was completely caught up in both stories, and went on to read the second book of this series, Before the Fall. Once projected to be a trilogy—and my copy of Before the Fall reflects that plan—it now appears the author has moved on to other projects.

The Spinning Heart
Donal Ryan is the youngest author in this company, and has written only two novels to date. The Spinning Heart … was gorgeous, just gorgeous. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, it won the Irish Book Awards Book of the Year and the Guardian First Book Prize, and, yes, it definitely deserved to be in that company.

Set in an Irish village just after the economic crisis hit in late 2008, the book is twenty-one short narratives by different characters affected by the collapse of a local building contractor’s firm. Oh, it’s stunning, really different and special because of that. It seems as if they’re each just telling their own story but as you turn the pages you realize there is a complete story arc developing, and it packs a wallop. The setting is contemporary, so the dialogue is modern, and these were voices I recognized, voices I’ve heard.

The Blackwater Lightship
Helen, a school principal in suburban Dublin, has a husband, two sons, and a brother, Declan, with whom she is close. Now Declan is dying of AIDS, and he asks Helen to break the news to their mother and grandmother, from whom they are both estranged.

Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, this novel hits all the notes: family, friendship, forgiveness. It’s an interesting comparison to The Land of Spices in this scene of a grandmother and nuns:

“Oh, the nuns loved her,” her grandmother went on, “and when she was in her final year … they called us in, and they had never looked up or down at us before, oh they were very grand, the nuns, a French order. And Mother Emmanuelle, the grandest of them all, told me that she believed Lily had a vocation. I smiled at her and said that would be the happiest thing for us. It was all smiles until I got out to the car and I said to your grandfather that I was going to pray to God to stop Lily entering the convent.”

“And did you not want her to be a nun?” Paul asked.

“Lily? Our beautiful daughter? Have all her hair cut off? And a veil and draughty old convent and only doddery old nuns for company? I did not! And I lay awake every night thinking about how to stop her.”

Over the Christmas holidays Lily (Helen’s mother) is sent to the next town to visit with her worldly cousins who taught her about boys and the latest fashions. And that was that:

… “So she went back to [school], and … we were called in before we took her home for Easter, and we were told that she was becoming a bad example to the other girls, and she had changed completely. Oh, I said to Mother Emmanuelle, I said, we haven’t noticed any change. It must be something in the convent, I said. Oh, she gave me a look, and I looked back at her. And she knew she’d met her match. And that’s how we stopped Lily becoming a nun.”

This scene (transcribed by me from pages 150–51 of a 1999 Picador paperback) made me laugh out loud. Tóibín is very, very good with dialogue: I can hear the Irish cadence here without even trying. And though reviewers have tended to like others of Tóibín’s books better, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

During the period of my Irish Lit Wallow, I also read Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and Nora Webster, both of which were fabulous.


Am I finished? Nah—I still have a few more to read: James Plunkett’s Strumpet City; Tóibín’s The Master; McCann’s Let the Great World Spin; Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer (a followup to The Woman Who Walked Into Doors); and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (and also her memoir, Country Girl). And I’ll be trolling Dublin bookstores again this June, so no doubt I’ll add to the list.

If you haven’t read outside  your usual haunts, give Irish lit a try. And if you have, please tell me about your favorite title!

* Four Irish writers have won Nobel Prizes for Literature: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Seamus Heaney.
** Does this mean I will never commit a cultural faux pas on my visits to Ireland? No. You can take the girl out of the States but you can’t take the States out of the girl. Though one does try.
*** For a more complete list of the Irish lit I’ve read in the last few years, go here.