Back to Éire

I’ve always been drawn to Ireland. I think this is because as a kid I was a firm believer in Brownies and Leprechauns. And by “as” a kid I mean “since” I was a kid. It has always seemed a mystical place to me. And while I am very aware of the fact that Ireland is far more than a land of light or spooky folktales and that the monsters and the horrors in Ireland have at times been very real, something about it has always drawn me. My favorite places are all over the place.

On my first trip to Ireland, back in the last few months on the last century, a perfect storm of weekend activities meant that instead of going to Galway, I went instead to Doolin. Doolin, a town of about 150 people, is right down the road from the Cliffs of Moher, and is home to two pubs known for traditional Irish music. I got a room in the Rainbow Hostel – the same one I’d stay in with two friend about 8 years later.

McDermott’s Pub was right next door, naturally, and I found my way there, naturally. While there I bumped into an old friend (Norm) from college and watched the big hurling tournament on TV, one of the reasons Galway was a no-go (the other two were a boat race and an arts festival). We drank Guinness after Guinness and I learned the stomach issues that can come with drinking the sentiment of the beer. I asked the band to play some Johnny Cash and was mocked by my friend up until they did. The town itself reminded me of Brigadoon (yes I know that one’s in Scotland). We walked through fields of mildly grumpy cows and bulls to the Cliffs of Moher. We hitched a ride back.

Eight years later there were three of us. PJ, Jake, and I. The Three Stooges. We rented a car, drove on the left, and did the dreaded Donegal Pass to get to Dingle (very scary and stressful). We hung out in a pub-hardware store in Dingle and a friendly guy at the next table told me with absolute certainty where my family came from. Did the ghost tour in Galway like typical Americans in Ireland. I was in heaven. We spent the night in the itty bitty “town” of Cloghane, which boasts about 30 residents and two pubs. We did the pub crawl and hiked through the village in about a minute and half. We then walked around the cemetery of stone mausoleums and tombs until we were too spooked to stay and then we ran home. While there we pretended that the wind blowing in the drapes was a ghost. It was a joke, but we all peered across the street at the graveyard before sleeping. Just to make sure it hadn’t come any closer.  

Surely the lure is the lore. The mythology. And the place looks like something out a fairytale. The atmosphere. We have stayed in miniscule villages and on a walk came across a castle. A little while later we walked to a village of cottages with thatched rooves. We found a pub where we ate dinner in front of a fireplace. On the way back we came across a half caved-in ancient stone hamlet. The place begs you to believe in folktales.  

On my last trip, about five years ago, we had a mission: to find haunted places. We started in Dublin, rented a car, and drove south to Birr and Charleville Castle. This is supposedly the most haunted place in Ireland and it was certainly ominous even in day. “The ladies used to hang their dresses over the soup kettle,” our guide said, “it used to kill the lice in their dresses.” Jake elbowed me. “Sounds worse than ghosts.” We met a seanachie (Irish storyteller) in Sligo. He carved us animals while he told us stories about soldiers and banshees on the Burren.

In Galway, where we found ourselves a little less charmed that we had been the last time. We headed north where we found the people like the accents: nice, but a little harder than in the south. We spent the night in Derry at a hotel run by two Hobbitish Columbians, who were five inches shorter than me. I enjoyed the exceptionally novel feeling of towering over someone. Jake and I went to the pub and asked about ghosts. A man brought us upstairs to a vacant room and told us a story that neither of us could understand a word of. Jake wrote in his notebook: I hope Damien is getting this, because I don’t understand a word of it. I had written the exact same thing, except I had put Jake instead of my own name.

We went to the Giant’s Causeway at 6 am before anyone else was awake. We had ole Finn MacCool’s walkway to ourselves for a good hour. On the promenade we had fish and chips so large that we thought one order was both orders. As we walked away the shopkeeper shouted at me, “Lads, you forgot one!” We were stunned as we wandered across the street to the ocean and sat on a bench. Half of my fish and most of my chips went to the seagulls, who hung above me knowing exactly what was happening.    

This trip will be about work. We’re going to teach in the TESOL Department at the University of Limerick for a week. We’ll spend a few hours a day teaching academic literacies and then we’ll explore the bookshops and pubs and castles of Limerick. Anyone familiar with the area is welcome to send tips. So far I have two secondhand bookshops in my sights. I have a stone circle, two castles, a bridge, and about fifteen pubs. I’d love a good pub recommendation and one for Guinness stew, black pudding, or cottage pie. Could go for a bookshop recommendation too. I promise a full report on all recommendations.

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