Tipsy Pilgrims Lost in Ireland: A Rambling Fireside Story
"Where are we?"
It was a fair question. My friends and I had been touring Ireland for days now, and to be honest, what we'd been doing was drinking ourselves from pub to pub, with notable castles, hotels, and ruins in between.
In a country renowned for Hibernian icons, it was remarkable that the foamy sip of a Guinness drawn just right, headed correctly, and placed on a well-worn bar to settle, could not only compete with, but also possibly usurp, the dominant triumvirate.
That, and an oaky couple fingers of Jameson, neat with a few drops of water to open up the flavor. Navigation had yielded to happy aimlessness. Like Canterbury pilgrims gone wrong in a rambling fireside story, we were lost.
Thank god we had a designated driver.
"No, really. Where are we?" Bill played with a map of Ireland, squinting at its cinched-waist silhouette. We were somewhere between Dublin and Galway, passing from east to west through the verdant belly of the countryside.
I looked out the window of our bus: white dots of grazing sheep skimmed past, punctuated by small grey clusters of buildings… houses, barns, sheds. Steeples here and there. Low, pewter-bottomed clouds. Where indeed?
It had all begun so clearly four days ago, with that rain-scrubbed morning in Dublin. We'd tromped around the capital city's Georgian quarter with well-known tour guide Will Collins, walking up to elegant squares and avenues punctuated by the neighborhood's famously Technicolor doors.
Collins, wiry and witty, had not only introduced us to the city's historic cityscape, but to a fundamental tenet of Irish life: the tall tale.
Consider our pause inside the West Gate of Trinity College, Dublin's esteemed 408-year-old institution that claims some of Britain's brightest stars as its alumnae (including writers Jonathan Swift and Samuel Beckett).
We were on our way to pay homage to the Book of Kells, a 9th-century illuminated manuscript that is certainly Dublin's (and probably Ireland's) greatest national treasure, tucked away soberly with low lighting in Trinity's Old Library.
But: irreverence before piety. Collins slowed up in the busy courtyard near the library, pointing out various college buildings, starting up a tale about how women were judged, sexually, by how they navigated the cobblestones under our feet.
After a morning of remarkable anecdote, each more colorful than the next, suddenly the most important question wasn't: Is that really the oldest pharmacy in Europe? Or Are those really bullet holes in Parliament House? But: Is any of this true?
So I asked. "Will, is any of this true?"
"Of course it is!" he said, grinning.
We faced off, adversaries on the game board of Irish storytelling. One man's lie is another man's entertainment.
And here it's the tale that makes the man. Despite history veined in the stone and pillared facades, the tethers of legacy and culture lacing this great European city together, here was where we began to lose our way, stumbling off the map and fresh into metaphorical Ireland.
"I don't believe you!"
"Of course you don't!"
We laughed, the truth recast as negotiable luxury, as chancy companion. And in a country where troubles have broken on the shore from invasion and famine to civil war, for several thousand years, a creative approach to daily life, a constant surveillance for the dark (or bright) humor of it all, seemed suddenly indispensable.
Leprechauns? Why not? Nothing should be as it seems.
I wondered about this the following gray afternoon, as we edged through a narrow passageway into a Neolithic burial mound at Newgrange, in nearby County Meath. To travelers used to monuments more on the styling of Great Pyramids, these low, broad hummocks appear more accidental landscape than human intention.
To span the historic reach to a culture digging a prehistoric life out of the harsh soils on this island more than 5,000 years ago seemed too far to imagine. It couldn't be that old.
I even found myself doubting our sturdy dumpling of a local guide, as she led us through the mound's stone-flanked entryway, past mysterious spirals allegedly carved here around 3,200 BC.
Once in the heart of the mound, crowded with fellow tourists, she pointed out a narrow ledge above the opening, where on the winter solstice, the sun passes by just so and illuminates the chamber for 17 minutes.
To make her point, she told us to steel ourselves while she shut off the lights that had been setting the underground stone aglow.
Suddenly we were in total cave darkness, the weight of earth and history overhead. Slowly, a special little spotlight recreated what one day's winter sun does once a year, casting a faint patch of light on a far wall.
Twenty years of 300 workers toiling to make this real, as she'd told us? Everyone wanted to know why, but she, it turned out, was no Will Collins.
"No one knows," she said, shrugging. "It's a mystery." In this case, the truth needed no play… it was buried in time, mist, and speculation.
Meanwhile, the longer we climbed amid ruins, the longer we found ourselves lingering in front of peaty pub fires, sipping and talking, revising the events of the day to make each other laugh. We began competing with Collins and other Irish friends for the quickest retort, the wittiest riposte, even the best limerick.
We stayed up later each night, discovering new rhythms of drink and talk. We slowed in our acquisition of facts. By day four, when Bill wondered, as we all did, where we really were, we'd already had a midday drink over pub food, and voted for a non-planned stop… at Knock.
Why Knock? Why this little village of barely 600 souls? Three words: The Virgin Mary. One of our Irish guides had heard that a local mystic had predicted a Marian Apparition, as they're known, for the coming weekend, and the idea of a pre-ordained miracle seemed the greatest hyperbole of all. Even in Ireland. We turned our compasses for County Mayo.
But Knock was already a thriving hive of pilgrimage, its narrow streets lined with shops selling Virgins small and large, plastic and plaster. For in fact, the Virgin had already shown herself here in August of 1879 (accompanied by St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist) to 15 villagers.
An inquiry several months later found the testimony satisfactory, and Knock began its ascent into shrine celebrity. Even the Pope visited for the centenary in 1979. Now, with five churches, a caravan park, and manicured grounds for the 1.5 million pilgrims who pass through annually, Knock hummed with reverent commerce.
We watched nuns fill what looked like hotel shampoo bottles with holy water from an outdoor tap. Would the Virgin appear this weekend, we wondered out loud.
How many faithful would congregate, their ancient belief fueled by electronic media, their faith unwavering in the face of habits of rigorous empiricism? Would this be a day of holiness or satire? Or both?
But more importantly, perhaps, was what would the stories be like? Virgin or not, what would emerge? What would Ireland make of this?
We put away the map, and made for the pub to talk about it.
Can half a million visitors a year be wrong? The gorgeously illuminated manuscript, The Book of Kells, is absolutely worth a walk amidst the academic hubbub of Trinity College. No, they don't turn the page every day.
For a taste of Ireland's greatest two exports (literature and Guinness), pay your respects at the Dublin Writer's Museum, a quaint shrine to the remarkable number of great essayists, novelists, dramatists and poets to have come from this small island nation.
Then it's time for a tour and a few sips at the Guinness Storehouse, nestled in heart of the world-renowned St. James Gate Brewery in Dublin City Centre.
An hour's drive north of Dublin, Newgrange pairs with Knowth, a second archeological burial tomb, at the Brú na Bóinne Visitors Centre in County Meath.
Newgrange is open daily year-round save for four days around Christmas. For the Winter Solstice viewing, enter the annual lottery for a much-desired ticket.
While in County Meath, don't miss out on Trim Castle, the largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland, restored with just the right balance of ruin and modern convenience (including vertiginous catwalks that crisscross the massive interior).
Scenes from Braveheart were filmed here; ask to see the window where Longshanks pushes his son's gay lover to his death.
In nearby County Roscommon, the whimsical and deadly serious keep close company at Strokestown Park House. The house, a full-furnished Georgian Mansion, is full of idiosyncratic family holdings and a wonderful glimpse of real life amid the landed gentry, while the attached walled garden is a splendid reminder of the local passion for gardening and symmetry.
Contrastingly, the National Irish Famine Museum (on the same grounds) lays bare the suffering of millions of Irish at the hands of not just the vagaries of nature, but also the cruelty of the ruling classes.
Bedding down has never been finer than on the road from Dublin to Galway. Start in style in the capital city at the historic Merrion Hotel, a simultaneously stately and cozy assemblage of four Georgian town houses, period gardens, and an art collection worth taking an extra hour to tour.
In County Meath, full of Celtic sites and the gracious River Boyne, make your own history at Bellinter House, an artistically restored country house with just enough fashion-forward touches to set the party in motion. "The Ruin" outbuilding houses a spa, and don't miss the small hot soaking tub tucked behind the main house
Indulge your inner Royal at one of two sumptuous castles. Kilronan Castle Estate and Spa, perched on the shores of Lough Meelagh in County Roscommon, was the ancestral home of the Tennison family. Nestled amid 49 acres, you'll feel luxuriously remote, and yet within day-trip distance of Dublin, Galway, and Sligo.
And while the digs are truly luxe at Ashford Castle, (dating back to 1228 and once the estate of the Guinness family), what you won't forget is a date with your own Harris hawk at the remarkable on-site School of Falconry.
Book a Hawk Walk with Ashford's passionate, knowledgeable guides, and get your own feel for a pursuit that's bound man and bird for 4,000 years.
In sassy Galway, there's no sassier set-down than the g Hotel, and you could make a vacation of hanging out in the opulent lobbies and lounges.
Has there been a fashion show runway laid down in that lobby? Oh yes, there has. And which pop-venerated, framed icon is more important here… supermodel Linda Evangelista or the Infant of Prague? You decide.
Finally, the Limerick of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes may have been grim, but the city today is full of great walking along beautiful riverscapes. And No. 1 Pery Square is an assuredly luxurious, yet modernly understated boutique hotel on a quiet side street close enough to all the action.
For all kinds of fantastic ideas and links to get you blissfully Brigadooned, go to discoverireland.com.
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