Tim and I rented a tiny silver car and hurtled around Ireland. Sixteen counties in four days, like a Yank tour bus. Tarbert, Ballyvaughan, Fanore, the Cliffs of Moher at sunset. Galway city. Up to Dublin–a flying visit to see Joy’s new morsel of a son–and on to Sligo to hear some diddley-aye music and pay our respects to Yeats. Down we came through Westport, ditched the car to scramble up Croagh Patrick, onwards to Achill, and through the bogs to Connemara. We boomeranged around Killary Harbour and past Kylemore Abbey, down to Clifden. Then home.
He is Canadian; I am Irish, and I am relieved to have my native sense of scale restored after the vastness of his country. Ireland is travel-sized convenience, where diverse beauties sit as close as Disneyland rides. The reports of rolling green hills miss the half of it: the lunar Burren limestone; the stark Connemara mountains, rearing up from the Atlantic, that only sheep can convert to food; velvety Tipperary; bright and windwashed surfing villages; the heathery, shifting Bog of Allen.
Our greatest-hits tour didn’t allow for the walks that earn landscapes. Nor did the weather. Still, in a year of buses I’ve seen nothing to better Ireland. In winter it has the most dramatic of lighting designers, and the scene changes by the moment. Ireland will not be fixed: you cannot say you’ve seen it unless you live there, and even so the claim is shaky. Ireland is theatre, not painting, and you have only seen a production.
Is it because this is ‘my’ landscape that I am so moved by the beauty and the history here? I don’t know. Even if I knew it only from a guidebook, I would still be affected by the story of the starving, desperate people who crossed the Doo Lough Valley one bitter Famine winter to beg help from their landlord. He refused, and 400 died on the journey home. Every few miles, we pass tumbledown castles, Stone Age forts, or early medieval monasteries. We pass Leamanagh Castle, where in Cromwell’s time Ma´ire Rua used to off the husbands who displeased her. God forgive me, I cheer her every time, the crazy old wagon.
The placenames whisper to me: Kinvara, Achill, Leenane, Drumcliff. They whisper “Come and live here in a cottage by the sea.” But the estate agent windows do not tread softly on my dreams. A cramped three-bedroom terraced house in Westport–butt-ugly Sixties pebbledash–is over $350,000. A rundown cottage, in the back of beyond, and smaller than my New York apartment, is half a million dollars. I’d blame Madonna, but she hasn’t even moved here yet. I try to picture the horror of the native Irish who were driven from the fertile east and south to these barren mountains, where I can’t afford to live today.
Ireland is so expensive that it takes ten of my dwindling Weimar dollars to buy an “open-faced BLT” in Lahinch. Open-faced, in case you’re wondering, means a half a stale ciabatta on the bottom and naked, greasy rashers on the top. Bare-faced cheek, more like. We soon learned to exist on crumbly picnics of McCambridge’s soda bread, Cashel Blue, and Milleens, supplemented with the chowder that is the only decent restaurant deal in these parts. (Tim has also developed an obsession with chips from Luigi’s Takeaway in Limerick, which are cooked in lard and disturbingly good.)
He was last here twelve years ago, when he hitchhiked around Ireland and fell in love with dilapidated, rollicking Galway. But you can never go back. On our pilgrimage there from Limerick, he sputtered “Housing estates! What’s with all the fucking housing estates?” from several miles out. Ireland hasn’t grown out of its obsession with owning property, and like every other urban area Galway is choked with dreary, expensive housing estates. The city centre is ruthlessly slick now, and there may even be more baristas than barmen, a dangerous tilt in the ecosystem. Students protested in the streets–“Against War, Racism and Globalisation”, bless their ambition–and a chopper whined in the sky for hours. The EU ministers were in town. I couldn’t stand it and begged to go back to Limerick, which does not tart itself up for visitors any more than the mountains or the surfy sea.