Ireland is still green

Ireland road

...And its people are gracious

These are excerpts from a story that, in its original form, appeared in The Cincinnati Post newspaper. The account was prompted by my second trip to Ireland.

Essay and art by Mo Conlan

There still are shades of green you’ll see nowhere else. And the smell of manure in the fields and diesel fuel in the towns. Ribbons of road – some not wide enough for two cars, so that one must back off to let the other pass – still wind dizzily up and down mountains.

And the sheep are still eating Ireland – grazing the hillsides, deftly maneuvering rocky ledges and, frequently, in the roads.

Ireland is a small, island country of 5 million people, 32,544 square miles that stretch 302 miles north to south, 189 miles east to west. By comparison, the state of Ohio, with roughly 11 million residents, encompasses 41,330 square miles.

But Ireland is much grander than its square footage. Imagine the beauty of the Appalachians combined with the Great Lakes region, the coasts of California and Maine; shrink them down to fit into Ohio and you get an inkling of Ireland’s natural beauty.

Though the mountains and coasts of Ireland are majestic, the buildings are mostly human-scale, cozy. Snug farmhouses, chimneys puffing smoke from a turf fire. Villages made up of two-story shops – simple salt boxes with brightly painted stucco facades, dressed with flower boxes of red geraniums and blue lobelias. Even the Norman castles are smallish.

You could tour the West peninsulas for the flowers alone. The mists and rain create a profusion of foliage. There are hedges full of fuchsia, hydrangeas in colors from true blue to pink and purple; rhododendrons in neon pinks, reds, purples; gladioli of all colors; montbretia, red-orange as a sunset; huge, glowing zinnias; marigolds and foxglove.

West Ireland will charm you, but it is not quaint for the benefit of tourism. What appears picturesque is an agricultural way of life, practical and proven. That wool cap on an Irishman’s head keeps off the frequent rain and wind; likewise, the wool jacket, a natural all-weather fabric to protect against bone-chilling mists and cold that may descend within minutes.

Those walking sticks are handy in a country so hillocky.

Because of the sheep, you will find hand-knit Aran-Island sweaters and other woolens for sale. It’s why you find lamb curry on nearly every menu. And why your pub cheeseburger may taste decidedly of lamb.

Pubs are centers of social life, where the Irish gather to drink a pint or two, to trade gossip, to warm a chill night and to listen to music. Music is another good reason to go to the West of Ireland – and to frequent the pubs.

If you find yourself in the West – plan to go to the local pub by about 10 p.m. and to leave sometime after 11:30, when the last pint is poured – though you may luck into an after-hours session with the pub blinds pulled down.

In the pubs you’ll hear ballads about the Rebellion, about the famine, and about love. You’ll hear comic ditties with contemporary social messages, and you may also hear decades-old American songs – “Blueberry Hill,” “Rawhide” and Elvis tunes. If the music is hired in, expect a singer with a guitar or a small group with a singer/guitarist, accordionist and, possibly someone playing the Bodhran (BOR-rahn), an Irish drum.

There quite likely will be singers among the pub-goers who, when coaxed, will perform. At Johnny Barry’s pub in Glengarriff, a hulking, pudding-faced man with stringy gray-brown hair and a beer belly stepped forward one evening, and the sweetest rendition of “Green Fields of Antrim” poured from his lips.

The Irish like Americans. They consider us nearly kin, which makes it so pleasant to visit there. And though the Irish have their own style English, we essentially speak the same language. But there is a dash of the exotic in West Ireland, as well, areas called “Gaeltacht,” where the Gaelic language, which predated English, still is spoken.

Mannerliness is part of the Irish culture. And with people being so polite, you find yourself reciprocating. You may say to a waitress, for example, “I wonder if I could bother you for…” And, when she delivers what you wanted, “That’s grand” and “Thank you very much.”

While Irish manners may be cultural conditioning, there’s evidence of genuine concern for others. When I first arrived in Ireland – air sick after nearly eight hours in flight – my B&B hosts took it upon themselves to get me help from the nearby chemist – a pharmacist - whom they consult for lesser illnesses.

During my visit there was a national drive for famine relief in Africa. It had the urgency of genuine national concern – live radio reports from refugee camps, volunteers standing outside shops collecting relief money. The Irish, perhaps because of their own Great Famine – seem sympathetic to others who are suffering.

I think it’s the people as much as the country that brings me back to Ireland.

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