Recently, we went to Ireland on vacation. I had some extra miles that I wanted to use up, and Ireland is a place I've always wanted to take Jamie and Marco. We invited my mother-in-law Sharon to join us. A few years ago, we drove around New Zealand together and had a great time. We thought it would be great to meet her in Ireland, rent a car, and have family time again like that. I was in Ireland back in 1995 and had a wonderful time and a pretty profound spiritual experience at the Cliffs of Moher (pictured above). For the cliffs alone, I wanted to take Jamie and Marco there.
The Itinerary: Driving Around Ireland
We decided to rent a car. I used to come to Europe as a tourist and ride the trains or fly. I can't tell you how different the experience is when you have a car. A car gives you great freedom to explore and you see so much more of the amazing landscape of Europe with a car. It's been very nice traveling across Europe in cars over the past 2 1/2 years that we've lived here.
For Ireland, I basically wanted to show the family a bit of Central Ireland, the West Coast, the Ring of Kerry, the South Coast, and the Wicklow Mountains as well as Dublin. That makes for a big circle loop of Ireland. We flew into Dublin, picked up the car and Grandma and headed to Athlone, Ireland in the middle of the country. Dublin is in the Northeast on the Coast and we were traveling to Galway on the West Coast. It's a mere 2 hours to cross the whole country. So we drove half-way around the country and stopped off at Athlone.
From Athlone, we went to the lovely city of Galway on the West Coast. This is a place that I fell in love with in 1995 and I wanted to buy a home there (not that I had the money). In those days, it was cheap to buy a home in Ireland. Today, it is outrageous (more on that later). Athlone is a bit more rustic than a lot of the places we visited, and looks a lot more like the "old Ireland" I remember--the pre-boom Ireland when it was a poor country. It was good to see Athlone, because so much of the rest of Ireland has changed dramatically that it's hard to see what it was like before globalization 3.0 took off.
Galway is a delight to walk around and we enjoyed catching the end of mass at Galway Cathedral--the newest stone cathedral in Europe which only dates back to the 1980's. Our B & B was cozy and from Galway we were able to head up North to Connemara, Ireland which has a landscape like Scotland. While there we were able to visit the Kylemore Abbey which sits on a lake in this unique part of Ireland.
We happend to be in Ireland on a sunny week. So remarkably, we didn't get rained on once the entire trip. This was great for seeing some of these sights that could easily be fogged in. However, it was the coldest March they've had in Ireland in 100 years. Even though it was only about 35 degrees Fahrenheit (or 5 to 10 degrees warmer than our home in Berlin), the wind chill made it pretty cold.
From Galway and Connemara we headed South toward the seaside town of Dingle. Dingle is a touristy fishing village on the West Coast, but it's a good place to hear live Irish music in a pub. So that's what we did, although Marco really didn't enjoy being around the drinking, festive people. Dingle was even smaller than I expected, but once again, we had a lovely B & B within walking distance of the town center. On the way down, we stopped by the Cliffs of Moher which drop off nearly 800 feet into the Atlantic Ocean and stretch for about 7 miles. It is called the end of Europe and it certainly does feel like the end of a continent. Across the way is nothing but ocean until you hit Canada. It's one of my favorite places in all the Earth--a sacred place to me.
TO SOUTHWEST IRELAND
After Dingle, we drove around the Ring of Kerry and even took a car ferry as we made our way down to the Southeast. This part of Ireland is much more "Irish." You see Gaelic everywhere and people still speak the old language. In fact, in this part of Ireland you can run into people that don't know how to speak English! It's a more traditional part of Ireland.
We passed through small towns and hills and mountains as we inched our way toward Kilkenny, which surprised me by becoming my favorite stop on the trip. I had expected Kilkenny to be the most boring of our stops, but I loved it. The road leading to Kilkenny is part of the beautiful ring of kerry which takes you past mountains and lakes and waterfalls. And Kilkenny itself is bigger than Dingle and has streets that are fun to walk around. We stayed at yet another nice B & B there.
By this point, we were getting tired of the greasy Irish food. People really do love their potatoes. One guy next to me was eating a giant plate of mashed potatoes, with baked potato, and then french fries covering the top of it. I guess it's not the Potato famine anymore in Ireland. It was hard to find stuff that wasn't oily.
DRIVING AROUND IRELAND
Driving around Ireland was fun and relaxing. I never feel like a natural driving on the Left Side of the road. I've done it in Australia and New Zealand, but this was the first time that it actually started to feel normal. There were a couple of moments pulling out of a petrol station into the wrong lane, but overall, it all made a lot more sense this time. I look forward to tackling the U.K. next.
The roads in Ireland have improved dramatically since I was there. Ireland's known for its bad roads and used to have an extremely poor infrastructure and the highest rate of car accidents in the world (now surpassed by China). But thanks to all that E.U. Ireland, the post 1990's Ireland has much better highways and wider roads. There was not much traffic in March and the weather was good for driving. We brought a whole ton of Irish music CD's to listen to in the car: Everything from early U2, to Enya, to the Corrs. But in the end, we preferred to talk and just drive in silence looking out the window. We never did play a single Irish CD.
The cost of petrol is about $9 a gallon. Yes, it's awful. Filling up the tank is about $120. But the car we were in got such good gas mileage (a diesel actually) and Ireland is so small, it only required 1 tank to do our entire journey. Cars tend to get better mpg in Europe than in the US. Frankly, I think Americans should pay more and ween themselves off cars more.
NO LONGER "A THIRD WORLD COUNTRY"
It was actually unnerving to see how much Ireland had changed. It was very hard to find a thatched hut roof--although we did see them. Instead we saw brand new homes in every corner of the country that we visited. Of course, Ireland is in severe economic trouble: one of the so-called "PIIGS" in Europe that is broke and needing a financial bail out. Ireland is deeply in debt, and a ridiculous property bubble was to blame. As Ireland's economy opened up, and the country courted international businesses by offering tax-incentives, the economy went up, prices went up, and the Irish went on a spending spree. It seems everyone bought a house they cannot afford. Today, many Irish people are in dire straights and owe far more than the value of their home. It was no coincidence that there were so many B & B's in Ireland. It's a way for families to earn money on homes they can't afford.
The amount of new-looking, suburban, American-style homes was alarming. When I was in Ireland, I only remember seeing one street like that on my whole trip. It was in Galway, and I asked my Irish friend Bartley how much it would cost me to buy that new, looking suburban home. $80,000 he replied. Amazing! Today, that wouldn't get you a thatched hut in Ireland, yet everyone and their brother has a brand new McMansion. Ireland is only at the beginning of what will be a very long, painful recovery.
Back in the 1990's, the lead character in the Irish film "the Committments" makes the comment: "We're practically a Third World country." And that's true. Ireland was always considered the "poor, sick man of Western Europe." Crime was high, jobs were scarce, millions were on welfare, there were still lots of hostilities with Northern Ireland, and Ireland was very homogenous.
But all that changed as tech companies and other new corporations relocated to Ireland and sparked an economic boom. Ireland was labeled "the Celtic Tiger" named after the Asian Tiger economies like Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. Ireland had never in its history been wealthy. Poverty and misery were part of the Irish national identity. And you got over it through humor, a love of the spoken word, and of literature. It was a huge shock to the Irish system to suddenly find themselves as the fastest growing economy in Europe. People bought expensive homes and immigrants from Africa and Poland moved into Ireland to take the lower paying jobs. Ireland became wealthy and multi-cultural.
But all of that is coming to an end now---yet, like Greece and Italy (which I travel too often), the signs of poverty are not yet visible in the infrastructure the way they once were--and probably will be 20 years from now.
SOUTH AND NORTH TO DUBLIN
From lovely Kilkenny, we headed directly south down to a little seaside town called Kinsale on the Southern coast of Ireland. Hotel and B & B prices were cheap. It helped that it was slightly off-season and that there is so much competition now that everyone has a B & B. While in Kinsale, we actually saw a seal swimming in the water front. Very cute. From the South we headed to the Wicklow Mountains where some of the scenes of my favorite movie of all time ("Excalibur") were filmed. The director John Boorman lives in County Wicklow. While there, we visited the ruins of an ancient monastic city (Glendalough) that dates back more than 1,000 years. Everywhere we went, we met a lot of funny Irish characters. All lovely, friendly people, but our B & B host here was a real kick with his thick brogue and naughty sense of humor.
A lot of our hosts were Catholic, but Catholicism has been in a steep decline in Ireland since the 2000's. There have been so many instances of sexual molestation and abuse by priests and nuns in Ireland that it has greatly disillusioned the Irish. The sudden wealth of the people also led to secularism as did the way the Vatican and Irish Bishops refused to take responsibility for crimes committed. Ireland, like Poland, went from being one of Europe's most committed Catholic nations to being just as secular as the other countries.
We awoke to snowfall on the ground one morning in Kinsale and saw it as we drove around Wicklow. But the weather stayed clear for us as we headed into Dublin. We walked to Trinity College and along the River Liffey before heading over toward St. Patrick's Cathedral. It was Good Friday. That evening we returned the car and headed to our airport hotel.
It was a wonderful, relaxing trip and it was great to have such focused time with the family. We all greatly enjoyed having grandma with us and we hope to do a vacation like that again in the near future. I'll continue to watch Ireland closely. It's a lovely country with lovely people and it is a shame that the coming years are probably going to be more difficult. But most of Europe is headed for hard times in the very near future. I'm glad I'm here at this moment. I hope we can help.