SO, MAINLY IT rained; dull, light-absorbing veils of fine, misty rain that would occasionally belch a heavier downpour, spritzing any hope for a glorious view. It was as though the entire world had turned glaucomic. Then again, this was Ireland. And this was late September.
You takes what you gets!
And then, occasionally, announcing the ‘better’ days to come with an unexpected glare of what could be Nabokov’s “brief crack of light”, the curtains would part, and a glorious, glowingly green world of rolling pastures, calm unhurried ports and lolling cows would reveal itself to skeptical eyes. It is not the green of vernal English pastures; this is a green undercoated with bright photons of yellow and blue. The result is a singular kind of luminescence…Irish emerald.
Kinsale, our first stop, is a small pretty village that embraces a crowded armada of yachts. Too small to boast its own cinema (yikes). But large enough for the three book-jammed bookshops and a full blown literary festival. This presence of a literary love spilling out into the hurly-burly of everyday life was something we came to recognize (appreciate?) as quintessentially Irish. All that and a belly-full of tempting restaurants would deny any categorization that Kinsale is a mere tourist seaside resort. (Though from the vantage point of our holiday villa felt it very much like that)
Cinema lacking, notwithstanding, the place is rich in history. Created in 1223, it’s the site of a famous battle (of Kinsale) in 1601. Here, a mongrel army of Spanish and Irish soldiers were defeated by the English. The Spanish went back home to their tapas. And the old Gaelic culture of Ireland died on the battlefield.
But this would not be the first attempt of the Irish to wrest themselves free from their colonizers. Four hundred years later (in 1921) after sporadic battles and never giving in to the English yoke, Ireland was partitioned and became an independent republic.
Blarney Castle, home of the Blarney Stone and mythical heart of Irish eloquence, is not far away. It’s a stunning castle hewn out of a mountain rising into a cloudy sky, framed by a necklace of blossoming flowerbeds and undulating brooks. If you’re prepared to queue for an hour and hang upside down suspended by belts, you can kiss the stone. You don’t need to. Get in to any taxi and experience the ongoing one person stand up (or sit down) routines of endlessly engaging storytellers.
Pubs, penance and palaver. Ireland in four words.
Of the surrounding towns, Clonakilty, birthplace of Michael Collins (commander in chief of the Irish Free State movement) is a pleasant, if forgettable market town. It does have one grand claim to fame though: it’s the home of world famous (they claim) Clonakilty black pudding…which certainly deserves its fame.
It is the even smaller town nearby – Timoleague – that’s more interesting. Here, legend has it, beekeeping and honey had its beginnings in Ireland. But more dramatically, this is the location of the grand, dark, ruined majesty of Timoleague Abbey. Founded in 1240 by Franciscan monks, by 1620, it was a centre of European learning; a hub of visiting philosophers. Twenty years later, Cromwellian soldiers – a rapacious nasty lot – sacked it and burned it down.
It’s not only ignorant ISIS jihadists who, fearing knowledge seek to destroy history.
The centre of the attractive city of Cork, famed for its rebels and its harbour, boasts a magnificent airy local marketplace on one side (the English market) and a fascinating art museum/opera house/theatre on the other. Food and culture. They represent one dimension of the city. But the web of stores that knit these two places together – Boots, WH Smith, Next, Top Shop, Fat Face, Starbucks, H&M etc – are another dimension; they suggest that a hundred years after the victory for independence, England and global businesses have once again colononized the place.
For all it’s attractive architecture (and there’s a gasp inducing cathedral – St. Fin Barre’s – at the far end of town) the heart of the city looks just like any other town made faceless by globalization. It is the little cobbled back streets that give it its soul.
Cork seems poised between a little city that could and a little city that could have been.
The graceful river that threads its way through the town (with the wonderful name, the Lee) is not embraced by the city; it seems more a problem to be overcome (build bridges) than an asset to be celebrated (build boardwalks). But follow it Eastward and the girdles that hem it in soon loosen and at Cobh (pronounced Cove), the river exhales into an expanse of cold clear water flowing toward the sea. It was from here that the Titanic set sail; as did almost three million citizens, bound (mostly unwillingly) for brave new worlds.
It’s a pretty little town easily reached by a short train ride.
After all those martial shadows, nice to arrive at this elegant, humming city of literature. Dublin (from the Viking, “Dyfflin”) is birthplace to Yates, Joyce, Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, Goldsmith, Stoker, Swift, O’Keefe, Sheridan. Oh, and Bono too. An entire Eng. Lit. 101 born in a single city. The place simply reeks of culture. It must be the water…and the way they distill it here with hops and barley.
No wonder the city revels in its literary traditions. There are statues, an entire museum dedicated to its writers, murals, landmarks and, it seems, daily celebrations of its gorgeous, mellifluous reinvention of English. How nice it is to bump into a statue of Joyce and not some obscure slave-owning colonial overlord. Trinity College Dublin boasts a library that holds over 200,000 rare manuscripts including the famous Book of Kells, an illustrated bible that dates back to 800ACE. A limited edition copy is yours for a mere £22,000.
This pub-dense city is split down the middle by the River Liffey.
Each side of the divide considers their side best. The choice seems to be between the style and erudition of the South v the polyglot proletarian energy of the North. The genteel v the gritty. Of course, in this island, there are more profound North/South divides. But we won’t go there.
And, to us wandering strangers, apart from the liveliness of the touristy Temple District, there are two landmarks that seem to visualize the South: The rarefied academia of Trinity College Dublin, founded by Elizabeth I (and resolutely Protestant since then) and the hallowed Guinness brewery (attested here by this delightful park: one of the man public spaces donated and created by the Guinness Foundation), an alcoholic shrine to the black stuff
The North felt like a place of transformations: a marsh turned into a village, a church turned into a pub, a maternity hospital turned into a cinema, a cinema turned into a McDonalds, a Street turned into a boulevard…
and best of all for both North and South, a colony turned into a Republic.