Land of Saints and Scholars

Ireland is a magical place.

If you don’t believe me, just ask these wee ones.  They are leaving coins in a fairy tree on the hill at Tara, after they have made their wishes.  For that matter, ask any one of the thousands of people who tied something to this wishing tree, and left a present for the fairies in the trunk to make it come true.

What follows is a brief series of travel thoughts.  If you are the sort who is put to sleep by other people’s travel slide shows, and you wish to wander over to youtube or play a game of angry birds on your Iphone, no judgement here.  See you next time.  Otherwise, here are the highlights, in roughly chronological order.

On Flawless Planning:  I think my family would agree that, of all of us, I am the most serious about advanced planning.  I’d like to be spontaneous.  Really, I would.  But grad school has ruined me, and now I am a chronic To-Do list person.  So it fell to me to plan this trip, knowing that moments of family peace are fragile, and family temperaments and tolerances vary widely.  Meltdowns are par for the course when we travel as a family. I had everything timed, reserved, and scheduled with Swiss-watch precision.  And then we had a hurricane, and there were five hours on the phone in two days with Expedia, and we left for Ireland 36 hours early. With no return ticket.   It all turned out fine, although there were some bumps in the road.  What I’ve learned this week about planning meticulously in order to control every contingency and avoid anybody having a meltdown:  the person planning meticulously is most likely going to be the person to have a meltdown. No matter.  It was all worth it for views like this one.

On Celebrity Hotspots:  Tina told us we had to have a drink at The Bailey in Dublin. As soon as we’d recovered from our 4-airplane, 36 hour travel adventure to arrive in Ireland, we did just that.  Great good fortune: The Bailey was around the corner from our hotel, just off Grafton Street.  Tina told us that there would be hip, aloof, oozing-cool types dressed in black and smoking while drinking pints.  A certain Irish bad boy celebrity’s name was bandied about as a possible frequent Guinness drinker there.  We didn’t find him.  We did find the tragically handsome bartender type, so over-the-top cool that he was possibly the only unfriendly person we met in Ireland, which is just the kind of character you’d hope for at a place like The Bailey.  It was great fun.

On Blarney, and More Wishes:  Of course, we kissed the Blarney Stone.  Tillman, my sister’s boyfriend, is a translator for the European Parliament.  Language is already his gift.  I told him that, instead of the Blarney Stone giving him the Gift of the Gab, it was more likely leaching some of that gab back out of him.  My favorite part of Blarney, though, is that it’s magic.  No really, it is.  There’s a witch who comes and gathers firewood every night on the castle grounds, and as payment for the firewood she has to grant wishes.  There’s a set of wishing stairs, and in order to make a wish, you have to walk down them (backwards), and back up again, with your eyes closed, while thinking of nothing but your wish.  It’s damn hard.  But I did it.  I wasn’t clear on whether I was allowed to tell my wish, or whether the not-telling thing is only for birthday cake wishes.  Tillman said we should experiment with my wish, and I should tell everyone, just to see.  Nuts to that.  I’m keeping my wish secret, just in case.  I’m no rookie, on wishing stairs.

On Never Crying Over “Danny Boy” Again: You are free to disagree, here, but I think “Danny Boy” is one of the saddest songs ever written.  Until I walked down the street in Killarney this week, and heard a painfully, painfully bad busker singing “Danny Boy” with a keyboard.  A)  Nobody in Ireland should have a keyboard.  Dude.  B)  I’m pretty much irritated with any band who has a keyboard.  (Exceptions include Filthybird and Onward, Soldiers.  It’s working for you. You guys keep it up.)  C)  This guy did “Danny Boy” as Neil Diamond.  I think it was accidental.  I will never be able to cry over “Danny Boy”  again.  “Raglan Road” has been promoted to Saddest Song Ever Written. And I will cry every time I hear it, because I didn’t hear it once in Ireland.  I threatened to lie down in the road and protest and be dragged off by security, if nobody sang me “Raglan Road” in Ireland.  (Wait.  That might have happened at the US Airways counter.  See “meltdown” above.)

On Drinking With One’s Mother in Killarney: Curious thing: we took my mother drinking in an Irish pub.  Not only was she a good sport about all the Guinness, which she officially detests, but she knew every word to a song so bawdy it has been legally banned in Ireland since 1967.  Shocking.  Knowing that the best plan is always to leave someone wanting more, my sister and I looked at our watches and conferred.  “One more song, then we’re putting you to bed,” we informed our mother.  She became a toddler, stuck out her chin, and held up three fingers.  “Nope.  Three more.”

On the Cliffs of Insanity:  We really wanted to have a sword fight at the top.

On Getting in Trouble for Staying Out Late: After three days of our rail tour, everyone crashed at the hotel.  Nobody could be talked into going out and walking the streets of Dublin with me, at 9:15 p.m.  I had a marvelous time.  I traipsed.  I frolicked.  I rambled.  I drank a Guinness in a pub.  I ate fish and chips by the Ha’penny Bridge.  I walked past Trinity College, and up to O’Connell Street, and back home through Temple Bar.  Four Irishmen, knee-walking drunk, were straggling out of a pub singing a plaintive Irish drinking song at top volume.  I was half a block away when I realized that what they were singing was  “American Pie.”  It was a beautiful travel moment.  I arrived back at the hotel at 11:15, where my mother was livid because I had broken some unspoken curfew.  Also kind of a beautiful moment: I have traveled around the globe solo, climbed under pyramids and up mountains, earned a master’s degree, owned a house for more than a decade, wrecked a bike on the equator, flown as co-pilot on a bush plane out of Zanzibar, paid taxes since I was sixteen, learned to weld, been lost in the Bermuda Triangle, and sung in Carnegie Hall.  And I am slightly older than 21.  But I can still get in trouble with my mother, for alleged misbehavior.

On Ancient Monuments: Visiting Newgrange Passage Grave was on my life list, and Mom was a good sport, so we went.  It’s a remarkable place, a thousand years older than the pyramids, and it’s one of the first things we studied in architecture school.  It’s a huge mound, and there’s a narrow stone passage that opens to a small cross at the end.  The magic here is that, at dawn on the winter solstice, the sunlight comes in for a span of seventeen minutes from the east and illuminates the grave at the end.  How? How, in the Stone Age, did they know where the sun rose at dawn on the winter solstice?  I’m not sure, today, I could locate that spot with a GPS and a Macbook Pro and a team of smart people to help me.  But the fact that the builders achieved this, and took decades to build a monument to it, says much about the lengths to which mankind will go in order to try and understand our place in the world.  (There’s a lottery every year to be one of the fifty people to stand in the passage at dawn and see it happen.  I’ll let you know if I win.)

On the Most Beautiful Waiter I’ve Ever Seen:  Oh, heavens.  There is one of these on every trip; some hauntingly beautiful man who will always remain a continent away.  This one was at the Winding Stair across from the Ha’penny Bridge, and he had elvish eyes and dark wavy hair.  He was tall and disarmingly nice, and was just a little bit shy, and that absolutely slays me. He reminds me of the description of Zooey from J.D. Salinger, as “the blue-eyed Jewish-Irish Mohican scout who died in your arms at the roulette table at Monte Carlo.” I think he might have been an Irish mythical figure, like Fergus or Cúchulainn.  When we were exchanging receipts at the end of the meal, he touched my hand.  I nearly fainted into the River Liffey.  I think I love him.

On Gypsy Fortune Tellers: On our last night in Dublin, I went for one last long walk.  I didn’t get into trouble this time.  But I did get my fortune told, by a lady named Jenny on Grafton Street.  I can’t decide whether Jenny was mentally sound, but I liked her.  She was wearing a giant puffy coat with a fur hood, and had a full mustache, with childlike eyes and the sweetest face you’ve ever seen.  She told my fortune, and then kept me talking for about ten minutes waiting for her next customer.  She’s been reading palms for fifty-two years, in circuses, in America, in Australia, and everywhere else.  She sounds kind of like your typical Cat Lady, except instead of being seventy-seven and collecting a houseful of cats, she’s collected dogs and horses.  She says she tells fortunes on Grafton Street once a week to pay for their food.  (On a side note: If you are one of the two “sort of fair-haired blokes” she saw in my palm who fancies me but hasn’t told me yet, speak up, fellow-me-lad.  Speak up.)

On Roads Not Taken: In my own personal ancient history, I was an English major, and I took every class in Irish Literature that Wake Forest offered.  Ulysses is my favorite book, and Yeats is my favorite poet, and you can’t wander down a street in Dublin without bumping into a world heritage treasure of literature or two.  At twenty-two, having no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I got as far as filling out applications for Irish Lit degrees all over Ireland.  And then I didn’t send them, as I couldn’t figure out what I’d do with a degree in Irish Lit, if I didn’t want to teach it.  But what if I had?  Luckily, it’s all still there, where I left it at age twenty-two.

On Magic, in General: Ireland is haunted, in such a beautiful way.  It’s ancient, in a way that America will never be ancient. Sure, our land might be the same age, but since Ireland has been inhabited through countless ages by countless peoples, all of whom left significant traces in the forms of astronomical markers and trading coins and Books of Kells and castles and Viking ships and Celtic sites, Ireland is a much more storied place.  There are hallowed spots everywhere, and magic seems to seep out of the rocks and pour out of waterfalls and hide under groves of trees in preternaturally green meadows.  It’s certainly woven into literature and architecture and song.  You feel a little bit as though anything could happen, if you wished hard enough for it.

And maybe it will.  I tied a scrap of paper to the fairy tree at Tara, too, and made a wish, and left the fairies a toffee.  If it comes true, I’ll let you know.  But otherwise I’m not telling, just in case.

Slainte.

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