Monday, November 30, 2009

Bonus Blog: Close Encounters of the Sidhe Kind

While officially my blog should be over, I can 'unofficially' drag this material out for another two to three months, but never fear, I promise not to bombard your inboxes with countless clover cliches and travel diatribes any longer. Though I will encourage you to check back occasionally, as I will likely pop up from time to time with another misty-eyed rant about my twisted need for a regular Irish fix. Until then, here's one more little ditty from our travels that Nathan and I'd thought previously to keep between ourselves. Yet it seems you people just can't get enough and since we've had the question put to us more than once, I thought I'd better post the answer here.

The question is: Did we run into any faeries or leprechauns during our visit to Ireland?

The answer is: But of course. Before I continue, let me set a few of you straight about the difference between American and Irish faeries.

The concept of faeries comes to us from ancient Ireland, Britain and parts of Europe. These residents of the Otherworld have long been the subject of countless folk and "fairy" tales. Now, I'm no expert on faeries, but I can say I've encountered one or two in my lifetime and therefore am at least acquainted with the species (if you can call it that) in general. Before you look up the exact area code for calling the mental health division of the Department of State Health Services, I should mention that I don't see the faeries, nor do I physically hear them. However, I do sense them and on occasion communicate with them. So, while that should rule out visual or auditory hallucinations, there's really very little I can say at this point to exclude the possibility of grandiose delusions, fantastical thinking and overall mentally unsound behavior. In that case, please feel free to continue dialing while I expound.

In America, the notion of faeries has unfortunately devolved into the benign, gnat-sized, winged, magical beings we often think of today. I'd like to take this moment to point the finger of blame at Walt Disney. Mr. Disney has warped all our imaginations beyond repair with his sugar-coated, sexist versions of the once dark and complex tales that served the ever useful purpose of keeping children in their beds at night where they were less likely to be eaten alive by any number of unknown, hellish beasts from the other side. If you don't believe me, I give you Tinker Bell, the popular American stereotypical 'fairy' who prances around in an Esther Williams costume and speaks by making a tinkling sound when she shakes her ass. But once upon a time, faeries were highly regarded nature spirits who worked vigilantly behind the scenes, maintaining a primarily peaceful connection between this world and the next. Notice I said "primarily", because faeries weren't all good, neither were they all bad. Whatever they were, they were to be respected, admired and even feared. Anything less might invite the wrath of the Sidhe (Irish term for faeries, pronounced 'shee') and invoke their trickster like -or worse- response.

While we hold to the idea, here in the states, that these beings are purely fictional figments of overactive medieval imaginations, the Irish are far more stringent in their views on the fae. It is very much a part of their culture still to recognize and respect the reality of faeries and they are careful to uphold the traditions that were passed down to them by their ancestors to keep the interference of these nature spirits at bay.

My own run-in with the wee folk of Ireland happened in county Wicklow, at the Glendalough monastic settlement. Having left the initial ruins and cemetery behind to stroll through the enchanted nearby forest, I crossed a little wooden bridge over a bubbling stream. It was freezing wet, a misty rain was falling and we'd been warned not to stray from the paved path for our own safety, but I couldn't resist the faeries' call when it reached me just on the other side of that bridge. Carefully I picked my way down a game trail that ran alongside the stream, almost loosing my footing more than once on the sheet of slick moss that covered everything in sight. Nathan attempted to scold me, but I was already too far ahead by the time he realized I'd left the trail. I clambered over a log or two, ever aware of the leading of my invisible guides. They had something they wanted to show me, just ahead, if I would only continue to follow them. Once or twice I considered turning around, but I couldn't shake the curiosity they'd instilled. All of a sudden I felt the command to stop. I was completely out of sight of the original trail by now but I knew I could get back easy enough. I looked to my right where the stream ran by, sensing their urging to 'look to the water', and I nearly doubled over with laughter when I saw it. There, folded as neatly as if in a closet at Buckingham Palace, was a pair of men's trousers hanging on an out flung branch over the water.

Now, I can't say how those slacks made it there exactly, but I can say that it is damn cold in Ireland in November and nobody is more aware of that than the Irish. It is highly unlikely they were left there when a well meaning Irishman dunked in the stream for an icy swim. They were too far out over the water to be reached or hung from the bank, not without sliding in and getting hypothermia. They were dark and unfaded, so they couldn't have been out there since the summer. However they came to be there, they'd not been there long. But the best part was how they were folded, creased down the middle of each leg, just like my mother taught me. The humor was unmistakable and I, for one, am dead certain that my Irish faery friends were delighted to share this rather jovial prank with someone new. The fae are tricksters after all, even if you believe they are little else.

So there you have it, my encounter with Irish faeries. Of course, I made my way quickly back to find Nate and drag him to see the pants. He cracked up and I dare say he might be willing to believe me from now on when I tell him the faeries are near. Thanks to those pants, I might even manage to avoid the padded cell and straight jacket he's been threatening all these years. Consider yourselves warned though, whoever the three of you may be, there are no Tinker Bell's in Ireland, but there is a gang of invisible nature sprites ready and willing to steal the trousers right off your shanks if you cross 'em! And somewhere, maybe a few meters down the Wicklow Way, is a pantsless man, probably American, wandering in aimless search of his $200 Calvin Klein dress slacks, praying he finds them before the goats do.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Day 7.5-Today: I've Got a Disease and Ireland's Got the Cure

It was our last evening in Ireland and I had hoped to spend it touring Trinity College or the National Museum's collection of ancient Celtic artifacts, or maybe even the Guinness Storehouse. Instead, we spent it shopping. Not casual window shopping, strolling from one charming storefront to another to appreciate the wares that can only be found in Dublin. Nope, this was more like a mad dash through the maze of leprechaun infested, clover clad aisles, scanning everything from dishtowels to ashtrays stamped with “Guinness” in an attempt to grab those last minute souvenirs we'd neglected to gather all along. For future reference, get your shopping done the first day so you can actually enjoy the remainder of your trip minus the added stress of trying to find a needle in a haystack on a time crunch.

When we'd at last managed to tick off every name on our list, we dropped our bags at the hotel and relaxed in nearby pub, The Long Hall. I slowly downed my last pint of real Guinness and Nathan sipped his last shot of Paddy 'neat' as we tried not to cry into our drinks right there at the bar. Crawling reluctantly back to our room, we sat in bed and recounted all the things we would miss about Ireland: the daily trips to the pub, ordering beer by the pint, getting a Guinness mustache from froth so thick you could practically balance a quarter on it. But it wasn't just the booze we were having a hard time letting go. I, for one, would miss the sheep. I would miss their little speculative stares, grass hanging out of mouth, as they assessed me and my camera wondering, "Am I wool or am I mutton?" I would miss that green that only exists in one place in this world. I would miss waking up every day looking like a Pantene commercial (is it the water?). And I would definitely miss my new found favorite flavor of Pringles, Prawn Cocktail.

Nathan, on the other hand, had his own demons to face. He was going to miss his Paddy, a very smooth, very cheap Irish whiskey we've yet to find here. He would miss the mounds of potatoes that came with every meal. He'd miss the strong, bold coffee made by press instead of an automatic pot, and he'd miss the chocolate candy bars that had become his daily ritual, Yorkie Bars ("it's not for girls!"). But more than all of these, he was going to miss his Irish breakfasts. I am afraid our hosts and hostesses had him rather spoiled by the time we were to leave.

So, sobbing ourselves to sleep, we spent our last night in Ireland dreaming of soda bread and castle ruins, hedgerows and carpet moss, and all the other little things we'd already grown accustomed to. We awoke at around 2:00 a.m. to the boisterous singing of a drunken Irishman stumbling down Dame Street after a night on the town and I couldn't even be mad. It was a fitting serenade farewell from the country I'd learned to love in a matter of a week.

Since we got home, I've begun my one-woman search for a Guinness that can match the ones served up at the Stag’s Head with no success. I've also attempted my first batch of soda bread with slightly better results. But the real winner has been our switch from an automatic coffee pot to a French press. As I stood staring down into my trash can, our automatic coffee maker hovering above that gaping abyss in my hands, I felt strangely liberated. It’s just one of many lasting marks Ireland has left on me.

It’s been nearly two weeks now and I still refuse to put away my suitcase. The scarf I bought in Kinsale hangs on my bed post when I’m not wearing it. After all, you never know when that midnight snowstorm might pop up. I wear my little silver Drombeg replica daily and finger the collection of sticks, rocks and even a rusty horseshoe I drug home in our spare suitcase (I’m sure the airport people were loving that). In the mornings I munch my soda bread and drink my press coffee and at night I dream of Ireland. In fact, not a night has passed since returning home that I haven’t dreamt of Ireland.

Nathan fairs a little better. He has slipped more readily back into the Texas routine of work, computer games and countless hours of mindless television. Although, he sleeps in his scarf sometimes with no shirt, which makes him look like Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And on occasion, when he’s cursing some new enemy assassin on one of his games who’s given him the slip, I hear a “What the Christ?” or “Jesus, Mary and Joseph an’ all the saints!” come barreling out in a thick, imitation accent.

I took this trip thinking it a cure for my Irish obsession, but clearly, I was wrong. Since leaving Ireland, it’s evident: Guinness flows in my veins and there’s a thick sheet of soft, cushy, green moss covering my brain and clouding my thinking. My mind wanders to the scenic views from castle windows and the lovely decay of monastic stone walls. I picture myself in a tiny thatch-roof cottage, warming my Donegal socks by the fire, basking in the smell of burning bog turf. I am afraid there may be no cure for this disease, save a 30 acre plot of neon green land in my name, milling about with fat, happy sheep and a little stone house with a ruby red door and window boxes overflowing with heather.

It’s a sad fact dear readers, whoever the three of you may be, Ireland is my disease and Ireland is my cure. So here’s to plucking a four-leaf clover at the end of the rainbow and making a wish on a leprechaun’s pot of gold, because that’s what it’s probably gonna take to get me there again. But if such a thing were possible, and I’m wholly convinced it is, there’s really only one place in the world that’s capable of that kind of magic and I will find my way back there, vertigo or no. And the next time they’ll have to drag me out of that country by my toenails because once I set foot on that wicked green land, I’m not sure I’ll have the willpower to step back off again. So hold on to your green acres Ireland, I’ve got an old stone cottage with a slate roof all picked out somewhere off the road to Kinnitty and I’m about to bring the Texas tradition of squattin’ to the Emerald Isle!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Day 7: Newgrange Passage Womb

No, it's not a typo. I meant to spell 'womb'. Yes, officially it is referred to as Newgrange Passage Tomb, but personally, between you and me, I think the officials got it wrong. Let me explain.

A couple of weeks before Nathan and I left for Ireland, I had a strange yet comforting dream. In the dream, I visited the home of two sisters. Now, these may or may not have been physical sisters, but they were sisters in something, of that I'm sure. I struck up a casual conversation with one of them and as she spoke a strange feeling began to overcome me, then I heard a deep, resonating female voice come through her and say to me, "Do you want to be reborn?" The instant I heard that otherworldly voice, I slipped into a kind of trance-like state within the dream and the woman began to whisper knowledge into me from some outside source. When I awoke, I was perplexed but unafraid. The voice tremored with an indescribable vibration, but it was oddly soothing, like the sound I imagine a mother's voice would make as it travels through the womb to soothe her unborn child.

Fast forward a few weeks and Nathan and I are facing our last full day in Ireland. With heavy hearts we packed up and drove out from Kinnitty to county Meath for a stop at the one site I refused to sacrifice: Newgrange. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Newgrange is Ireland's most renowned passage tomb, though it is not the largest, the oldest, nor the most decorated. Passage tombs can be found everywhere in Ireland, or nearly so, but the Boyne River Valley in county Meath has an unusually high number, the majority of which have yet to be excavated. Newgrange perches atop a hill like any other, it's gleaming quartz face beckoning from the distance, pulling and drawing you in as do the many spirals carved over the entrance stone, a massive megalith laid on it's side just blocking the door so that one could not enter in without scrambling over its surface and considering the message chiseled there.

If you're missing the significance here, allow me to put it into perspective for you. Newgrange predates England's Stonehenge by a thousand years. It was gallantly crowning that same hilltop where it can now be seen at least 500 years before the first pyramid was constructed in Egypt's Giza. While its appearance may seem crude, its architects expertly designed the structure to align perfectly with the dawning winter solstice sun, so that once a year, on the morning of the sun's rebirth, a single shaft of glimmering light enters the tomb through a special gate just above the door, travels down the dark canal, and pierces the back chamber, setting much of the interior aglow, the patterns of spirals and geometric shapes dancing suddenly in the new dawn.

Like millions of others who've gawked at the immense skill and precision it would take to build and align the various elements that go into the magic of this structure, you may ask "why"? And the answer is, they don't know. Cremated human remains found at the site have led to the title 'passage tomb', but I think that the experts are jumping the gun. Crouching like an ape to crawl through the narrow, winding passage that leads deceptively upwards, I emerged into what I can only describe as a rock-lined hive of a room. Every stone was perfectly poised one atop the other so as to dome overhead for the last five millennia without the aid of mortar or any fixing medium. Three tiny chambers, large enough for maybe two people to stand in at a time, are set off this central cavity. Each one grounded with large, preset stone slabs. In one, the slab had been scrupulously hand shaped into a large bowl. I stared at that bowl and thought how tender and cradling was its form, how that intention could not have been lost on its maker. As the light snaked inward during a reenactment of solstice morn, I felt as if I were watching a divine coupling take place. Newgrange didn't seem to me a place of death at all; rather it seemed very much a place of gestation.

When the tour was finished we filed quietly out the way we'd come in, practically on our hands and knees. Just before I reached the door, the glaring light already causing me to squint and blink, the words of my dream came funneling down that dark corridor after me, smacking me in my solar plexus with a guttural revelation, "Do you want to be reborn?" I hit the sun-drenched world outside the door in an instant and felt as if I was just entering it for the first time. The energy of that place still clinging to me, I knew all at once that I had been reborn.

There isn't room or time enough to write about the myriad of other synchronicities surrounding my mystical experience at Newgrange. Suffice to say, it was the perfect way to end a perfect jouney. I said in my first blog that for me this was not a vacation but a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages are taken to leave behind the fetters of modern life and reconnect to a deeper understanding that lingers in the lonely and forgotten places of our planet. They are a voluntary walk into the grave, so that one can emerge anew to a world that is full of hope, possibility and life. My seven days in Ireland peaked in the instant the words of my dream returned to me. If I am to greet the world as a newborn babe, there is nowhere else I'd rather do it. If I am to see the world with fresh, unblinking eyes, there is no landscape I'd rather look upon. Ireland began as a dream for me, a longing, a prayer. But she has ended a mother to me, as surely as she is mother to those who roam her hills and bear her blood. I believe now it was her voice calling to me from some unknown place in my dream, beckoning me to her distant shores and verdant mountaintops, her many rivers and many secrets. If Newgrange is anything at all to Ireland, it is her womb, a place to cradle and nurture the possibility of new life. I entered it as a tomb perhaps, but I walked away from what I would more readily describe as a birth than a death.

We left Newgrange that afternoon and headed for Dublin to catch our morning return flight home. I'd been a little down prior to that about our adventure coming to an end, but Newgrange exhilarated me in a way I didn't think possible. Instead of feeling as if I were at the end of something, I was alive with a new beginning. The grass was a little greener, my step a little lighter, the sun a little brighter than it had been before. Ireland wasn't a dream fulfilled after all, it was seed planted.

Day 6.5: Before We Move On...

Okay, before I throw up the next post, here's a couple more pictures to help those of you without x-ray vision see the face I'm talking about in the Leap Castle photo. Remember to check the farthest window to your left to see her silhouette. Feel free to post any comments you have here. Think it's simply an optical illusion? Tell me. Think I'm on my way to a new career in ghost hunting? Let me know.
Also, I'd like to make one small correction. I believe it was Emily Darby who fell from the tower. Charlotte, her younger sister, died young of unknown causes but is suspected to be a plague victim when an outbreak sprung up in Ireland some years later. I'll be back this evening with the next blog, Day 7. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Day 6: The Face of Leap Castle

We left the pockmarked coastline of Cork to travel north, up through the fertile midlands to Ireland's hidden gem: the Slieve Bloom Mountains, a gently rising range densely clad in fir forests and crowned with heather and blanket bog. Nathan and I intended to spend the next two days hiking to our heart's content through the sanctified serenity of Slieve Bloom. Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas.

On our sixth morning, Nate and I crossed ourselves, armed ourselves with whatever psychic regalia we had and headed a few miles up a country road to Leap Castle, one of Ireland's most haunted sites. Now, you may have already heard of Leap Castle, maybe even seen it on television. The castle's bloody history and reputation for the paranormal have landed it many a headlining role on various 'haunted' shows, the best known of which would be Ghost Hunters, Scifi channel's docu-series following TAPS, The Atlantic Paranormal Society, and their all-night vigils trying to capture evidence of the other side in some of the world's most haunted places. Don't worry though, Nathan and I have experience at this as survivors of the Myrtles Plantation and Salem, Massachusetts.

When we pulled into the circular drive, we began to think we'd arrived at the wrong place. Leap's crumbling facade was partially boarded with plywood. An aging motor-home sat to one side and a heap of rubble along with several ladders sat to the other. A sheep dog with some kind of skin condition greeted us reservedly (is that mange?). Surely this was not the ghost ridden hot spot of legend, praised and filmed on American t.v.? It was.

Sean Ryan, Leap castle's current owner met us at the giant studded, wooden door after I clacked the knocker a few times. I was instantly charmed. Mr. Ryan looks a bit like Ireland's version of Jerry Garcia: husky, hairy and happy. He led us to his fireplace where a crackling flame perfumed the air with a mingle of peat turf and incense and bid us sit down in one of the well worn chairs gathered round. For the next couple of hours, we sat spellbound, listening with rapt attention as he laid out the history, both normal and paranormal, of the place he now called home. Like any landmark that has survived a good many years, Leap Castle has seen its fair share of tragedy. It only follows then that at least a few of those who'd lived and died there might want to stick around. Listening to Mr. Ryan spin his tale I felt certain the television shows were both right and wrong. Leap Castle is haunted, but a hotbed of demonic activity, it's not.

Whatever spirits linger there, they were wholly eclipsed that morning by the castle's living resident. As he played us a tune on the Irish whistle I realized, Leap Castle hosts something rare indeed and it's not just the ghosts. Sean Ryan is a modern day bard, part storyteller, part musician, part historian. As he weaves his enchantment over you, you walk away entertained and enlightened. A couple of hours as his audience is worth however many euros he'd like to charge, though he only asks for six. It is no small leap (pun intended) of the imagination to see how in their day, bard's were a very hot commodity amidst the ancient Celtic societies where they lived and loved.

My story should end here, but it doesn't. Before driving away, we snapped off a couple of pictures of Leap Castle. I didn't ask to take any inside, feeling it disrespectful to the privacy of our host. After all, the castle is now a warm and loving home, not just a tourist trap. After we returned to the States and I plopped down the $50 it took to develop over 350 memories on film, I noticed something unusual in one of the Leap Castle photos. In a window to the left, where the castle is still decrepit and unlivable, is the pale silhouette of a person. Zooming in, I expected the form to dissipate in a play of shadow and light, looking less human upon close inspection. Instead, it looks more human. Using zoom on the computer, a face begins to emerge, with two shadowy eye hollows and a distinct forehead, cheekbones and shoulders. It appears to be leaning around the edge of the window, watching us drive away. It looks young and feminine. Not unlike how I imagined the face of twelve year old Charlotte Darby as she fell from one of the castle's watchtowers to her death centuries ago.

Before that picture caught my eye, I thought I'd just met the real face of Leap Castle. Now I wonder, is the ghostly image in the window a trick, a pattern played by the leaves and vines slowly pulling the castle's wing back into the earth? Or is it the real face of Leap Castle, watching silently from the shadows as another unsuspecting car of visitors pulls innocently away? You decide for yourself...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Day 5: The Standing Stones of Drombeg

Before we left for Ireland, I made an entire list of 'must-sees' during our trip. I don't mean literal destinations like Dublin or Newgrange. I mean things that I felt were uniquely Irish, things I definitely couldn't see here and maybe couldn't see anywhere else in the world. You can think of it a little like Irish travel bingo. Just imagine a card divvied into squares, each one containing its own picture. One might show a raven and another might depict a rainbow. On one there would be the image of a sacred well and on another, a rag tree. Maybe when I'm all blogged out I can share my list in a special blog with my loyal readers (all three of you). Until then, I'll give you a clue. One of the things you would definitely find on my bingo card, probably dead center, would be a stone circle.

Stone circles fascinate me. Don't ask me why. Could be novelty caused by the obvious lack of them here in America. Could be curiosity. You can't see one without wondering what it's doing there and why someone went to all that trouble to erect it. Could be a bunch of metaphysical mumbo jumbo about sacred space and energy lines, yada, yada, yada. Truthfully, I think it's all of the above. Fortunately, Ireland is dotted with them like a case of bad pubescent acne. Cork and Kerry alone share 120 between them! While I'd love to see them all, I am reasonable, at least some of the time. So I settled for one. And to make it easier on Nathan, I wasn't even picky about which one, just as long as I saw one.

By the time we reached Kinsale, we'd already passed two signposts for two different stone circles off the road somewhere. Nathan wouldn't stop for either. Well, it's not that he wouldn't as much as he couldn't since the signs sprung up out of nowhere as he was blazing through the sheep fields like a bat out of hell leaving a train of fire in his wake. I kept telling him to slow down. By that point I was, needless to say, unamused. I seethed, then I pouted, then I finally gave up. That's when we walked into Kinsale Silver.

Picture this, a tiny one-room shop where the local jeweler tinkers away at his table making teeny singular replicas of ancient Celtic artifacts in silver to display as pendants, rings, earrings or pins. On one table, to the right, lies a solitary silver ring upon a cloth of black velvet, almost crude in it's appearance. Behind it is propped a picture in a simple wood frame. The picture is of a grand thirteen stoned circle jutting crookedly out of the earth, cows and sheep milling happily in the background. The ring is its replica.

I marched right over to that picture and swooped it up off the table. Holding it up to the jeweler and jabbing my index finger at it I demanded, "Where's this?"

He looked at me, his expression all a muddle of shock, confusion and perhaps a little fear. "About 40 Kilometers from here," he stammered.

"Can you draw me a map?" I commanded more than asked. At this point, Nathan is hiding his beet red face amid a curtain of Celtic knotwork necklaces, feigning interest so as to not be associated with the crazy, picture wielding American lady.

"Ya," the jeweler relents, hesitating.

I laid the picture down on his table and heaved a sigh of relief. I would get my stone circle by golly, if it's the last thing I did. "I'll also be taking the ring," I added decidedly, which elicited a small, involuntary shudder (a natural reaction Nathan has to me spending money-it's a wonder this trip didn't send him into convulsions) from my husband in the corner trying to pretend he didn't know me.

The next morning found us off bright and early with nothing but a sketchy, penciled map and a silver ring to guide us to Drombeg, Ireland's most photographed stone circle. Luckily, signposts kicked in about two miles up from the actual site, but until then it was an iffy hour's drive. You have to understand, this isn't Stonehenge. There are no tour buses here. These circles litter the backyards, wheat crops, sheep fields and cow pastures of Ireland's rural communities. Save but for the enduring patience of the farmers who find themselves the proud keepers of one of these ancient monuments, we would never see them at all. These men have to contend with people of all walks of life tracking back and forth upon their land at all hours of the day and night for a little of the circle's magic.

On a crisp, sunny morning, five days into our trip, when the moon was still visible low in the sky to the west and the water lay quiet, dark and brooding to the east, I saw my stone circle. Thirteen gleaming jagged pillars, of the original seventeen, stood proud and steadfast before me, reaching toward the bluebell sky with whatever dignity they had left. I walked around them, touching each one, zigzagged in and out of them, snapping shot after shot and I knew, this was someone's cathedral. We may never know what these circles were really for, but what we do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that they mark something special to our ancestors. These stone circles are the monuments of our parents of the stone and iron age and as such, they are our inheritance, our birthright. They belong not just to Ireland, they belong to the world. I, for one, was privileged to be among them.

I wrote a story once, called The Guardian Stone. The gist was that every stone has a story to tell and therefore an inherent value. I collected countless rocks as a little girl (and still do) for that same reason, always imagining what my little specimens might tell me if I could get them to talk. As I stood in Drombeg circle, I was awed with wonder at what those stones might say if they suddenly started speaking. What could they tell us, standing as sentinels to 2500 years of change and evolution? What would they teach us, as the guardians of that same 30 feet of sacred space for over two millennia? I can't even begin to know.

Drombeg turned out to be a two-fer. On site, just behind the circle, is an ancient well, dug at the time the circle was erected as a place to retrieve water for aid in food preparation for whatever stone-age festivities went on there. I'd brought an empty plastic bottle for just such a thing. No, it wasn't a well associated with any new world saints or heroes. It wasn't one of the wells that countless Irish still made pilgrimages to regularly to ask for divine intervention in whatever struggles they were encountering. But to me, it was holy. To me, Drombeg's well might be the holiest water in all Ireland. Before I filled my bottle, something flashing in the sunlight amid the ashes of a recent fire within the stones caught my eye. Bending down, I found a single, 1 cent euro. Suitable fare for my parting gift (Glendalough taught me well). I stooped beside the well, offered a prayer, a kiss and a euro to whatever gods or goddesses still ruled in the hallowed waters of that old, old place and I filled my bottle knowing that a little of the mystery of Drombeg was coming home with me.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Day 4: "C" is for Cork, Color, Crafts & Cod

No, this is not some misguided, tossed out draft of a Sesame Street script. This is Day 4 of mine and Nate's Irish excursion and our introduction to county Cork, the farthest we wandered on the map from Dublin, our starting point.

County Cork is wedged along the southern coast of Ireland between it's smaller, more popular neighbors, county Waterford, home of Waterford Crystal, and county Kerry, home to Ireland's top tourist destination, the Ring of Kerry. Always willing to go against the herd, I decided to forgo the Waterford Crystal factory and the stunning, wind-whipped (and therefore exceptionally cold in November) Kerry peninsula for the quaint, picture-perfect postcard town of Kinsale, with its colorful harbour full of sailboats. Also, Nathan refused to go to Ireland unless we visited Kinsale, so that played a bit of a role in my decision as well.

Kinsale claims to be the oldest town in Ireland, a title that I'm sure many of Ireland's towns and villages are willing to stake a claim on. While its seniority may be arguable, what is not up for debate is the tons of charm this sloping village packs into its minuscule proportions. Here's where the C's begin. Kinsale's charm can be levied on the three C's: color, crafts and cuisine. Amid the subtle greys of a misty Irish sky, Kinsale's many painted shops and cottages pop like the neon lights of Las Vegas at night. Reds, blues, yellows and greens light up the landscape like a technicolor parade. And it doesn't stop there. Kinsale's artsy fartsy residents aren't afraid to expand beyond the primaries. Think Barney purple, hot pink, Arizona turquoise and pumpkin orange, to name a few. No matter how cold and dreary the weather, one peak up or down the rainbowed alleyways of this little fishing village will warm you right up.

If a dozen Easter-egg tinted photo-ops don't do it for you, consider the crafts. Ireland is known for its crafts. I'm not talking Hobby Lobby cross-stitch or painted birdhouses. I mean quality, hand-made, you'll-have-to-write-it-into-your-will-it-will-last-so-long items that combine form and function in a way only the Irish can. Silver, pottery, hand woven scarves, sweaters and hats, photography, sculpture, the list goes on and on. Kinsale is home to many unparalleled artisans who draw hour upon hour of inspiration from the moody nearby sea and the cradling curves of the coastal Cork landscape (there's some C's for ya). Here's their best kept crafty secret for all those who think I'm crazy for passing up the Waterford factory: the Kinsale Crystal Showroom; an individually owned studio with one of a kind, deep cut crystal treasures you won't see the likes of anywhere else, even at Waterford. If you're ever in the area, bring your cash and your sunglasses to Kinsale Crystal. You'll need both to get out of there without retinal damage.

If I still haven't convinced you of Kinsale's merit, let me give it one more shot. The final C is for cuisine. Kinsale boasts that it is the culinary capital of Ireland, and that's probably a title they can take to the bank. Especially when you consider the loads of fresh seafood that float in and out of there daily; prawns, oysters, mussels, scallops and my personal favorite, cod. It may surprise some of you to hear that I chose cod over a platter of shellfish drenched in a creamy concoction of butter and herbs. Cod is my favorite because it's the traditional choice for fish and chips. Yes, you read me right, I visited Ireland's culinary capital and ordered fish and chips. These, however, are no ordinary fish and chips. These came from a little restaurant with harbour views that serves only fish and chips because they know how to do the tried and true classic right, in a top-secret handmade batter that fries up to the most heavenly golden brown you can imagine, drizzled in fresh lemon juice and malted vinegar. Not only that, they have an entire menu of fish and chips, a veritable fish and chips smorgasbord, if you will. Now whose mouth is watering?

There you have it, the three C's of Kinsale in county Cork. I have literally spelled it out for you. But if you think that's all you're gonna find in the county that hosts Blarney Castle and its notorious stone (which I have it on top authority is regularly pissed on by the local boys, "Pucker up sucker and kiss this!") then you are wrong again. Curious? Too bad. You'll just have to wait for the next blog. Stay tuned...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Day 3: Is This Island Rocking or Is It Just Me?

Apparently, it's just me...

With a fond farewell to our friendly Wicklow hostess and a stolen moment to repair my shaky alliance with a number of the county's more irritable, invisible residents, Nathan and I hit the road in search of Kilkenny City, in county Kilkenny. I chose to stop at Kilkenny City for three main reasons: Kilkenny Castle, Kilkenny Craft Center and Kyteler's Inn Pub. I would only return for one of those, the pub.

Kilkenny City is a good 2.5 hour drive from the village of Laragh, where we stayed in Wicklow county; longer, if you're still adjusting to driving on the right-hand side of the car on the left-hand side of the road. Particularly if that "road" is a foot wide half-paved rollercoaster romp through the hills of Ireland, buffeted on either side by a densely overgrown wall of hedge, or even better, a twenty story drop to one's eternal glory. We were beginning to understand why we kept getting the familiar response from the locals, "You didn't drive, did ya?"

I'd say about an hour into that drive I was struck with the sudden sensation that not only was the car moving, but the ground beneath it was as well and not in the same direction. A good half hour after that Nathan found himself waiting patiently by the side of the road while I attempted to keep down my black pudding. With a few more breaks to stop the world from spinning, we finally found ourselves in Kilkenny City. I mistakenly thought that once out of the car, all would be well again. Apparently vertigo doesn't care whether you're walking, riding, sitting or sleeping, it keeps on rockin' just the same. The walk from our hotel to Kilkenny Castle was like a three block long fun house.

The castle was lovely, though I would have liked it more if it would have sat still. Note to self: winding 700 year old stone staircases constructed for Irish midgets are not conducive to alleviating vertigo. The craft center was fabulous, if we were about 2,000 euros wealthier. I discovered later that there is a store in Dublin named "Kilkenny" which is essentially a larger, better stocked version of the Kilkenny Craft Center, making our shopping detour superfluous. The only truly redeeming quality about the city, I decided, was its selection of fine Irish pubs.

I came to Kilkenny for one pub, the medieval and purportedly haunted Kyteler's Inn, former establishment of Dame Kyteler who was found guilty of witchcraft after being married four times and allegedly poisoning her husbands. She was sentenced to burn at the stake but seems to have escaped her fate and fled the country. As one Kilkenny barman put it, "She was what we call 'cute'." I believe 'cute' is Irish for 'sneaky'. The pub now boats a kitschy, witchy themed atmosphere, replete with a black-clad, many-moled mannequin stoking her cauldron fire. It was wonderful! Trust me, nowhere does the medieval witch trial victim angle work better than in a stone constructed pub established in 1324. It was very convincing.

Kyteler's Inn would have alone made our Kilkenny detour worth it, but we also bumped into a good two to three more cozy centers for good ole Irish craic, stout and traditional music. One was named Paris, Texas and was modeled after the movie which the owner apparently fell in love with sometime in the early eighties. Having had the unfortunate experience of passing through Paris, Texas, it is hard for me to imagine anyone naming anything after it, least of all anything of value. But who was I to burst this poor, deluded Irishman's bubble?

While Irish roads and Irish castles do not a cure for vertigo make, Irish beer is another story. Here's the secret. You have to have enough. It seems, and I can say this based on my wholly scientific impromptu experiment carried out all in the name of selfless medical research, that a pint or two may not stop the world from spinning, but six will take that island by its hills and nail it firmly to the earth where it belongs. So this is my advice to any and all who find themselves trying to hold on to their Irish breakfast after a nine hour plane ride and three day excursion through the country's back roads, find yourself a good pub, sidle up to the bar and down a steady six pints of Guinness, doctor's orders. That'll knock things straight again.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Day 2: The Haunting of County Wicklow

On our second morning in Ireland, we were happy to leave the madness of Dublin behind and head south of the city into the mountains of county Wicklow. County Wicklow bills itself as "The Garden of Ireland" which, from what we could see, is quite accurate; if by 'garden' you mean 'hauntingly beautiful mountainous terrain thickly blanketed by enchanted forest'. When Americans think 'garden', we usually think of the tortured, wilting tomato and herb specimens we fruitlessly try to nurture into viable flora again and again via our not-so-green thumbs (some of us learning the lesson sooner than others). Apparently, the Irish have a completely different view of the word 'garden', one that more often than not includes sheep, but we'll get to that in a later blog.

Yes, the Wicklow mountains are a serene, inspiring backdrop for much of Ireland's tumultuous history. They are home to various movie sets, including Reign of Fire starring Matthew McConaughey, several firing ranges utilized by the Irish Army (thus the tanker that nearly pushed us off the road), scattered herds of wild, feral goats, various fantastical and/or mythological beings and countless ghosts. You may not find those last two on You'll just have to take my word for it.

Like many visitors to Ireland, we decided to tour the ancient monastic site of St. Kevin at Glendalough, one of three glacial valleys in county Wicklow. The initial ruins include a church, a monk's house, a round tower and a cemetery. Now, I've visited many a historic cemetery before. In fact, I like to think of myself somewhat as a connoisseur of final resting places. That said, no graveyard has ever made me feel the way this one did. As we walked among the tilting tombstones and Celtic crosses, I, for no apparent reason, began to cry. Nathan rolled his eyes and pulled out a Kleenex, "What's your problem now?" All I could say was that this place felt very sad, very tragic and the weight of all that sadness was sitting on me like a bacon press. As we moved towards the back of the cemetery, the weight lifted and I felt better. Coming again through the front to exit, I could feel it returning. Here's where I made my fatal mistake.

One of our family members -and you know who you are- requested I bring back a rock from Ireland for their souvenir. I'd intended to get one while in Wicklow, but I knew as I perused the sorrowful site at Glendalough, that taking a rock from that ground would be wrong, very, very wrong. Instead, I plucked one from between the deteriorating stones inside the church, just above the still visible font for holy water. I'm not sure what I was thinking, except perhaps that A.) the rock didn't technically come from the ground, B.) the church should be a happy place by contrast to the mournful cemetery, or C.) a rock is just a rock, right? Wrong.

That night, after we'd retired to our room in the Wicklow Way Lodge, where Mr. McConaughey stayed during his bald Reign of Fire days, I awoke sometime around 3:00 a.m. from a terrible nightmare. All I could remember upon waking was that in the nightmare I was cornered in a castle or dungeon of some kind, being confronted by the cumulative spirits of Wicklow for having offended them beyond all hope of reconciliation. In the dream, I was quite ignorant of whatever it was I'd done, if indeed I'd done it all, but that was of no significance to them. Something was coming for me. Something dreadful. Something being sent to punish me for my crime. I awoke so terrified that I contemplated packing up right then and driving, or rather having Nate drive, straight into the next county. In one evening, I'd gone from viewing the Wicklow mountains as the most enchanting, breathtaking natural wonder on the planet, to a recoiling place of torment sodden with the spirits of Ireland past.

As it turned out, Nathan was not keen on a midnight getaway and promptly rolled over, writing off my fears as yet another one of my ridiculous, however imaginative, delusions. With no other recourse, all I could do was pray and ask to be shown how to appease whatever disgruntled ghosts I'd awakened. The answer seemed obvious, and I promised to follow through at first light. I was rewarded with a much happier dream to follow, which implied I could leave Wicklow county acquitted of all charges. Long story short, the lovely owner of Wicklow Way Lodge now has an inconspicuous little addition to her driveway rock collection, courtesy of St. Kevin's church. The moral: leave sacred ground where it lies, don't collect rocks, tell well-meaning relatives with unusual souvenir requests to get stuffed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Day 1: Driving in Dublin

We began our Irish adventure on a cool Monday morning in the most obvious of places, the Dublin airport. Ireland boasts only two major airports as far as I can tell, the largest being in Dublin on the east coast, and the other in Shannon on the west coast. Our plan was to spend one night in Dublin before venturing out into the countryside. While everything I'd read had strongly, and I mean strongly, advised against driving in Ireland's capital city, I being the rebel that I am, ignored it. Much to my own peril, I'm afraid.

Driving in Dublin is a bit like drinking your body weight in liquid LSD, spinning in circles until you nearly throw up, and then trying to perform open heart surgery. Suffice to say, it's virtually impossible to do without near fatal injury to oneself or others. My husband Nathan had signed on to be my chauffeur, quite unbeknownst to him until we arrived at the Hertz station. I made this decision based on his uncanny aptitude for Sony PlayStation's Need for Speed. That may sound ludicrous, but I stand by my decision. Believe me, driving in Ireland is not so different from the fast-paced Indy racetracks of a popular video game. The only difference was we didn't get the fancy, tricked-out car. We got an over priced Mazda 3 with scratches all along the left side from the previous inept American drivers who'd rented it before us.

Thus begins my first lesson in Irish cunning: do not get taken by the car hire people. Thanks to the naivete splashed across our deer-in-headlights expressions, we spent an extra 140 euro on our car rental than we should have. It would have been worse had Nathan not caught on before the guy could sell me an additional 200 euro in unnecessary insurance. Insurance is a must have if your driving in Ireland, but if you've already arranged and paid for it online, they are happy to take your payment all over again once you've arrived by emitting that small detail.

With a good bleeding, very little instruction and a sarcastic "Good luck, you'll need it," we were turned loose onto the open roadway in our haggard sedan plastered with "Keep left" stickers. A forty minute drive from the airport to our hotel took us over two hours, thanks to an unnecessary detour through the town of Swords. Why did it take us so long? I like to blame the maps. You see, like snowflakes, no two maps of Dublin are alike, but what they do all have in common are lazy cartographers. Each map shows about half of all the actual roads in Dublin. Of those, only another 50-60% are labeled. I now know why Irish rock stars U2 wrote the famous tune, Where the Streets Have No Name. What you end up with is a skeletal fraction of what you are going to have to navigate. Since coming home, I've torn up all my Dublin maps and begun using them for toilet paper.

Here's the best I can offer those as audacious as myself, stick to the roads lining the Liffey river and the streets labeled with an "M" or "N" (the equivalent of our freeways) as best you can. Once you are off those, Dublin becomes a madcap, wonky ride through the rabbit hole, sans Alice. Just because a street is named one thing on the map, doesn't mean it's actually labeled with that same name on its signage, and just because a street is called one name here, doesn't mean it will be called the same name even a block away. If I could have superimposed all the maps of Dublin atop one another, I might have actually had a complete picture with which to navigate, but as it was, all I could do was flip from one to the next while Nathan maniacally circled the same round-about shouting, "Why didn't you tell me it was going to be like this?"

After unnecessarily touring half of Dublin's outlying towns and villages, circling countless round-abouts (the Irish answer to an intersection) and dodging hundreds of pedestrians, we finally stumbled upon our hotel by sheer accident. The two second trip from the door to the parking garage (called a "Car Park" in Ireland) took us another twenty minutes. We'd made it through what proved to be the hardest part of our trip and perhaps our lives. Of course, Nathan was two heart palpitations away from a full-blown panic attack and threatening divorce, but we'd done it. As we walked into the lobby of our historic hotel, I turned to my poor, frazzled husband and said, "The rest will be easy, I promise." He didn't look convinced. "Come on," I told him, "we're Texans, we tamed the Wild West!" But the truth of it is, the wild west has nothing on Dublin.

A Blog About The Blog: Why Ireland?

Ireland is a fantasy, a mythic relic I have carried in my heart for so long now that I can't remember a time when I didn't want to go there. The enigma is that I really don't know why. I have no obvious Irish heritage. I don't have a great Irish surname like O'Brien or O'Donnell. I don't even have a great Irish first name like Shannon or Kelly. I didn't marry an Irishman. No one in my family has been to Ireland and come back with marvelous tales or pictures to tempt me. There is virtually no explanation for this Celtic infection that caught when I was fairly young and took over. All I can say is that the idea of Ireland inhabits a place in my mind reserved for unicorns, Avalon and the Loch Ness monster. It's a kind of dream space where all the things we wished existed when we were kids continue to live out their magic. The difference is, Ireland does exist. And because it does, it gives me hope that maybe those things do too. Somewhere beyond the fog, there might actually be a fairy flitting about. Or maybe there is a place where the rainbow ends and untold fortunes are waiting to be uncovered. Ireland makes me believe in the unbelievable. It seems impossible that a place that beautiful could simply be the result of a geological accident. Surely in some lost time, amid the crumbling, carved facade of an unknown hall, a host of mythical beings sat around a great stone table and conspired to create a land where dreams and reality converge. That land, I am proud to report, is Ireland.

When my husband and I first planned this trip, I was beside myself with glee and anticipation. Though we had only months to get everything together, it felt like it was thirty years in the making. However, just before we were to leave, I was walloped with a terrible notion. What if Ireland didn't live up to my expectations? What if the reality of Ireland fell short of the fantasy I'd always entertained? Ireland had become my mystic compass, without it I would feel lost in a world of the mundane. This trip had the potential to crush the dreamer in me. Luckily, it didn't. Ireland turned out to be more magical in reality than it ever had been in my mind. This blog is my attempt to share a little of that magic with those who haven't had the pleasure of feeling it for themselves. It's my way of chronicling my journey, because Ireland is not a mere vacation. Not to me. Ireland is a pilgrimage. It is my Mecca, my holy land.

In addition, I hope it will provide a little practical advice for those, who like myself, are planning a trip and scavenging the internet in hopes of finding some nugget of traveling wisdom gained through personal experience instead of the same old regurgitated guidebook tripe. Try as I might, I had a hard time scrounging up real advice for visitors to the Emerald Isle that didn't come from a tourist site, and I wanted my experience of Ireland to be unique and personal, not patterned after the tired routines of countless tour buses.

Most of all, I must confess, that this blog is my attempt to keep Ireland alive in my heart and soul. It is a sad, perhaps desperate effort to maintain my connection to a place that feels more alive and vibrant to me than any other, to keep it from slipping effortlessly back into the mists where it ceases to be real anymore. Now that I'm home, the Texas landscape seems a dismal comparison to the day-glo green I came to love during my week in Ireland, my new favorite color. Still reeling with the nausea of post-flight vertigo, I take comfort in knowing that right now it is 2:00 in Dublin and a bevy of urban pedestrians are making the cobbled streets of that grand old city virtually impassible for motorists, countless sheep are happily grazing through lunch in rolling pastures the shade of radioactive Kryptonite, and the celebrated stones of Newgrange are solidly standing watch over their spiraled secrets, awing a new busload of visitors as they await the dawning Solstice sun, just like they have for the last 5,000 years. Oh yes, Ireland will make you believe.