I am Irish to my very core, but the more I traveled the world, the more I wondered …did I really appreciate Ireland? As I navigated the globe on cruise ships, the question arose again and again.
Arriving by ship into New York on St. Patrick’s Day was the ultimate spark to ignite the Irish pride within. I watched the parade in New York City — the largest such celebration in the world — surrounded by my Irish shipmates on Fifth Avenue, staring in amazement at the millions (yes, millions) of spectators dressed in green, cheering on the marching firefighters, police and bagpipers. Their enthusiasm was infectious. Had I been missing something?
Numerous times on the ship, whenever Ireland was part of the itinerary, passengers would approach me for the inside scoop on what to see and where to go. Hearing my Irish accent, they’d figure I must have something useful to say about historic Trinity College, the legendary Guinness Brewery and the ancient Book of Kells, which just happens to be Ireland’s greatest treasure. Who knew? I’d never taken the time to see any of the above.
It dawned on me. The Emerald Isle and its picturesque capital of Dublin were certainly beloved, but by others. What did it mean to me?
It’s sad to say, but Ireland was a country that I’d been groomed to leave. I left Ireland at the early age of 18 to work in the tourism industry. Back then, in the early 1990s, before the rebirth of the Irish economy, young people fled Ireland as there were no jobs to sustain them. Our family farm would go to my older brother,so my life would have to unfold somewhere else.
I grew up in Waterford, a mere 100 miles from Dublin. You’d think being so close, we’d have gone sightseeing a time or two. But a treat for us was a trip to the beach. Annual holidays involved a ferry to Wales and a train ride to London for a week of sightseeing.
As an adult, Dublin was nothing more than an airport that ushered me to my next assignment, an exit point to more important destinations. Of all the places I’ve been — and I’ve been almost everywhere — it was in Dublin where I was mugged, and in Dublin where taxi drivers, assuming I was American, took the long way so they could overcharge me.
Eventually, even I couldn’t escape the ironies of my travel life. I’d been to Alcatraz in San Francisco and Robben Island Prison in South Africa, but never to Kilmainham Jail, a place of national significance, since many political prisoners in Ireland’s fight for independence had been confined there. I’d been to the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg and the Smithsonian in Washington, but never to Dublin’s National Gallery of Ireland. I’d toured the wine countries of California, Washington and Cape Town, but never taken the Guinness Brewery tour…even though I knew well the adage that a pint of Guinness will never taste better than it does at the brewery itself.
I vowed the next time would be different — instead of dashing off to go shopping or visit old friends, I would see Dublin as a tourist with new eyes and an enthusiastic spirit.
That day came a decade ago when I boarded for the European cruise. It was gorgeous and sunny. The approach into Dublin’s Alexandria Basin port was magnificent. Even I, the jaded hometown girl, was excited to embrace Dublin and my heritage anew.
My first destination as a wide-eyed tourist had to be the Book of Kells. Recently visited by the Queen of England, the Book of Kells is a series of illuminated manuscripts of the four Gospels drawn by monks 1,200 years ago. As a child, I had this amazing teacher who loved Irish history. He told us how the Book of Kells survived invasions from the north and pillages by the Danes. It was a wonderful testament to the tenacity of the Irish and their ability to withstand hardships.
At school, we learned calligraphy by studying the Book of Kells and copied illustrations as art projects. It was a constant subject and in retrospect, I can’t believe it took me so long to see it.
On arriving in Dublin, as customary, I met with my friend, Justin O’Brien, a chef I met during my college days. This time, instead of catching a bus outside of Trinity College, where the Book of Kells is housed in the library, I ventured on the campus for the first time in my life.
The Trinity Library itself is quite famous. The main chamber of the Old Library is the Long Room, aptly titled and smelling of old books, wood and the passage of time. Books line the walls, floor to ceiling for as far as the eye can see and are presided over by a series of distinguished marble busts representing some of the most famous writers in the world, and yes, many of them are Irish, some of whom were themselves students at Trinity. We joined the queue for the Book of Kells and waited quietly for our turn in the softly lit room. As I stood before the day’s exposed manuscript pages, I was amazed. The Book of Kells is tiny. I’d convinced myself it must be six feet tall, but it was no bigger than your average paperback. It was a bit of a shock, actually. I felt like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians.
Upon closer inspection, I admired the rich blues, greens, yellows and faded reds of this precious document. I thought about all the time the monks spent, over years and years, to create this jewel, comprising 340 folios of pure magnificence. It speaks of absolute dedication to their beliefs, and it is a real piece of Irish history. There were many other interesting books, manuscripts and items that caught our interest and kept us moving through the various areas.
After our visit there, Justin and I walked around Trinity College, which has beautiful grounds and magnificent buildings. It was the early spring, and I thought then, as I do still, I really need to get back there and see the gardens in the summer. We gazed in awe at Arnaldo Pomodoro’s “Sphere within a Sphere” bronze sculpture and Justin, being an ex-seafarer, recognized it from his frequent transatlantic trips as being similar to the sphere outside the United Nations in New York.
Now I was in full-blown tourist mode! From Trinity College, we made our way to touristy Grafton Street, where the statue of Molly Malone, the tragic fishmonger who is hailed in a famous Irish pub song, stands. There she was, forever wheeling her wheelbarrow on the street. Of course I took a picture, as have so many visitors before me.
I had just a little time left before I was due back at the dock, so I went to the Avoca Store & Café, where Justin works as a manager. Avoca, an Irish-run family business, began as woolen mills outside of Dublin. Since then, it’s expanded to become a small chain of places selling quality clothing, gifts and food. It’s a great place to get a cup of tea and a traditional Irish scone.
Since that day in Dublin, I’ve gone on to visit other Irish landmarks I’d never taken the time to visit before. I’m proud to report, I’ve now kissed the Blarney Stone. I’ve also circled the eight stops that make up the bucolic Ring of Kerry. I’ve taken the long way to Tipperary, stopped at the Rock of Cashel and walked along the panoramic expanse of the Cliffs of Moher. In many of these places, I’ve been surrounded by tourists, which makes me laugh in remembrance of the old me, who never took the time or had the interest.
I’m so glad I discovered that it’s more than fun to be a tourist in my own land. Visiting my country’s landmarks has helped me better appreciate my roots. I searched the world looking for adventure and escape. I was so eager to get out and visit other, more exotic places. Finally, I discovered the fullness of the natural beauty and rich culture that is Ireland.
The country is no longer the sad Ireland of my youth, the one I was always in a hurry to leave. Whenever I can, I’m eager to continue to explore and enjoy all facets of my homeland — there is still the Guinness Brewery to be seen. From now on, the next time someone asks me for a personal recommendation about what to see and do in Ireland, I’ll have plenty to say.