Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A personal tribute to Eire

I'm three quarters Irish: Cheryl Elizabeth Cecilia Mahan. Grandparents: Connor, Daly, Mahan (originally McMahon) and Sauerbier (how my German grandmother ever joined up with this lot, I'll never know). Despite the tiny dose of German in me, I'm Irish through and through. We named our daughter Erin for goodness sakes and she has red curly hair, beautiful blue eyes and dimples. The very picture of a typical Irish lass.

We love Ireland and have been there three times. It's been a tough winter here and the pull of Ireland is very strong at this point. Aer Lingus (the Irish airlines) seems to have a fare sale about once a week to tease us and tempt us. So far we haven't given in to the siren call (yet) mostly because we're neck deep in the house renovations. Tomorrow's task for me is mold remediation. Lovely.

Anyway, as I yearn and pine to go back to Ireland this year, I thought I'd post some pictures from our 2007 trip so you can begin to understand the pull that the country has for us. We went again last year but took many fewer pictures on that trip.

Most of these pictures are from Doolin, a tiny town on the west coast of Ireland, gateway to the Aran Islands and about 10 kilometers from the Cliffs of Moher. It is a beautiful area, full of friendly people, sheep, cows and rocks. It is the beginning of The Burren, an area of million-year-old limestone rock that has been scraped almost clean of any vegetation from millennia of erosion. What vegetation does grow is scraggly and extremely hardy.

Hiking on The Burren - look at the tiny tufts of green clinging to the inhospitable rocks and the beautiful little flowers trying to survive in the stony soil.

We have been lucky enough to stay in the same Irish cottage, Ballyreen*, owned by an Irish American lady who works in Geneva Switzerland when she's not at home in Doolin. It's a wonderfully cozy two bedroom cottage half a kilometer from its nearest neighbor and beyond the cottage is the Atlantic Ocean and beyond that, the United States. Remote but so peaceful and there are so many stars out at night that you cannot believe the sky could be so crowded with them. It is complete bliss to sit in the combination living room kitchen at night, warming your toes by the peat fire and sipping a glass of red wine.

Ballyreen Cottage, Doolin
The light gray material in the foreground is the stone wall on which the camera was perched.

The view out the front door of Ballyreen cottage and the neighbors across the road

The grazing density in the pastures throughout The Burren is very light (in other words, few cows in lots of space) because there just isn't much grass covering the rocks beneath so the cows need generous amount of land for grazing.

Stone fences, single lane roads with lots of twists and turns where the locals drive about 60-80 kilometers (40-60 mph), hell bent around the curves. Dogs, chickens and cats laze or graze in the middle of roads that are little more than old cart paths.

This is a typical two-direction secondary road and that's a Ford Focus. I sucked my teeth down my throat and grabbed for the oh shit handle frequently as Johnnie drove us around, imitating the locals' driving style and enjoying the challenge of driving and shifting from the right hand driver's seat. I drove a couple times but preferred to navigate with the help of our GPS Jill.

This is Johnnie in front of our favorite pub, McDermotts. Even a town as small as Doolin had several pubs and we tried them all. Lunch became a pint of Smithwick's usually with fish and chips (Smithwick's is most appropriately pronounced Smidicks). And then usually we took a nap.

We were in Doolin for Easter in 2007 and had gone to the grocery store on Saturday knowing that most stores probably wouldn't be open on Easter Sunday. So we grilled chicken burgers and then made green beans and sweet potato wedges togo with them. We discovered we had forgotten to buy an onion until after the stores were closed (the nearest food store of any size is in Lisdoonvarna, about 10 km away). So we asked Patsy McDermott if we could buy an onion. "Makin Easter dinner, are ya?" she asked. John nodded yes that we were. She turned to the bartender and said, "Ah, just give 'im an onion, willya?" (I know you can't hear this in Patsy's Irish lilt that is playing in my head and I wish you could.)

So we went home and dined on sumptious chicken burgers complete with Patsy's onion. No Easter ham or lamb ever tasted as good.
Sheep family near the Inisheer lighthouse

We took the day ferry over to the most populated and closest of the Aran Islands, Inisheer (spelled Inis Oirr in Gaelic, the primary language in the west of Ireland). We had a small map and ended up hiking more than seven miles over dirt and gravel paths. Where there weren't any paths, we went up and over the stone fences cross lots until we came to another path. We were headed to the lighthouse and when we got there, discovered that it was not open to the public. Grrrr. This foursome of sheep darted out from one of the stone pastures, raced ahead of us then halted in unison as if someone had issued a command and turned around to look at us. We obliged by taking pictures. What a perfect Irish moment.

*If anyone is looking for a wonderful Irish vacation/retreat, please let me know in your comment and I'll be glad to put you in touch with Maryann, Ballyreen's owner. She lets the cottage by the week and it's more than just a slice of heaven.

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