With St. Patrick’s Day this past week, I thought it would make sense to reflect on my connection to the Emerald Isle and what makes it so special.
Although born in England, I have Irish ancestry on both sides of the family. On top of that my brother Dominic was born in Ireland, as before moving to the Cayman Islands in 1975 we spent four glorious years living in the fishing village of Dunmore East on the south east coast.
It was an idyllic place, with the sound of seagulls coming up from the docks as the boats arrived with their catch. And in the pub, the music of the Dubliners.
My mother used to take us to the beach so we could swim. The Caribbean Sea it wasn’t, but we dunked our thin, pale bodies in the water, splashed around for a while, then ran to get Mom to wrap ourselves in towels. The chattering of teeth stopped a few minutes later.
Our stay in Dunmore also marked the beginning and end of my future career in ‘Riverdance’. I had Irish dancing lessons at my school and every day when I came home I was asked if my teachers had said anything. You know how parents are – they always want to hear feedback about their child. I never had anything to say to them, until the day I walked through the door and my mom asked the usual question, I finally had some information.
“What did the teacher say?” asked my mother.
“Put your Smarties down while you dance, sweetheart,” I replied proudly.
Years later, I don’t know if you noticed, but neither Jean Butler nor Michael Flatley had a single piece of chocolate on their person when they electrified the audience at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. To reach this level of greatness, I would have had to give up sweets; I think you know the rest of the story.
Once we moved to the Cayman Islands, I became an island kid – eating mangoes, catching soldier crabs and chasing fireflies. After four years of settling into the Caribbean way of life, we returned to Ireland for a visit and to see old friends. Eager to relive my youth there, I was determined to go swimming in the old playground. Unfortunately, the soft white sand of Seven Mile Beach and the warm waves of the Caymans had turned me into a wimp. I found myself carefully chopping pebbles towards the water, which was full of vacationers. As a toe touched the surf, I screamed. Had someone knocked over a cooler at this exact spot? Was there an off-road iceberg? Had it always been this cold?
Of course it was. I was just a much tougher kid when I was 5. I tried to move on, thinking that once my body adjusted to temperature I would be fine, but no cigar. Around the waist, I had had enough – my legs were numb. I staggered out, shivering. Lesson learned.
It was our last trip to Ireland as a family, but individual members like Dad and Dominic went there to reconnect with friends. In 2013, I felt it was high time I went back, so my best friend Lynne could experience Ireland for the first time.
We worked out a driving holiday that would take us from Dublin across the country to Galway and the Aran Islands, then stop in Lisdoonvarna for the annual matchmaking festival, see the Cliffs of Moher, spend a few days in the Dingle area, then head to Dunmore East before returning to Dublin.
One thing we realized quickly after hitting the road is that you’re stuck behind tractors on country roads and massive tourist buses on coastal roads. Doesn’t matter – the scenery was breathtaking.
We already had a detour in our plans. An old friend from Cayman was getting married at a spa hotel in Cavan, and she insisted that we attend the event (“Ah…you’re going, you’re going, you’re going.”) We went to the wedding, j I ended up singing an impromptu number, then everyone moved on to the after-party, which had every sign of going until the sun came up. In the end, the only way I was able to extricate myself at 4am was to plead a need for the bathroom and not come back. Despite plenty of beer and wine and a long day behind them, the bride, groom and the entire wedding party had superhuman energy. The next day they were bright and bubbly without a care in the world, when I needed 12 aspirins and a tureen of water.
A recovery period later, we were heading to Galway, a city famous for its oysters and live music. We stayed at the iconic Meyrick Hotel in Eyre Square and explored the wealth of Galway before heading to Rossaveel to catch the ferry to Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands.
As we were to spend a whole 24 hours there, we naturally bought enough food and drink for three weeks at SPAR near the ferry dock. As we dragged shopping bags along the way to the ferry, one of them tore under the weight and scattered its contents everywhere. I’ll never forget the sight of Lynne clumsily running after a two-liter Coke bottle that was rolling down the tarmac, trying to catch a break.
It was a quick trip on the ferry. Lynne looked like the Michelin Man, all bundled up against the wind. Our bed and breakfast owner picked us up once we got to the other side, and as soon as we dropped the bags off in our room, we were off on our rental bikes to explore.
If you have never visited the Aran Islands, you absolutely must. Stone walls, quaint houses and the surrounding water provide breathtaking views at every turn. With my backpack on and both of us navigating the narrow country roads with ease, we felt like two of the Famous Five, off on an adventure.
As the sun edged towards the horizon, we could have turned around, but instead made the decision to head towards Dún Aonghasa, a prehistoric fort site on the edge of a 100ft cliff.
We had to park the bikes and climb for a while, but it was worth it. It was another spectacular sight, especially when the waves crashed against the rocks below.
Unfortunately, our trip home was not smooth. I had underestimated the steepness of the road we had to travel to get to our lodgings and my mount was constantly turning against me. Let’s just say there are parts of my anatomy that weren’t used to sitting in an unforgiving bike saddle for hours on end. A couple of puzzled residents saw me huff and puff on the hillside, my chip face covered in sweat.
Lynne wasn’t in as much pain, but she still admitted it wasn’t child’s play. By the time we got back to our room, I was catatonic. It was my fault that I overestimated my athletic prowess – I shouldn’t have assumed that after years of being a couch potato, I could suddenly handle riding for hours on end. That being said, I still look back on this part of our journey with special fondness. Inis Mór was truly magical.
The next stage of the program was another kind of magic: the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival. I think it’s a much more organized affair these days, but I wouldn’t have changed our experience for the world. People of all ages descended on the small town for a weekend of dancing, drinking, matchmaking and more dancing. We stayed at the Hydro Hotel, “the only night club in Lisdoonvarna”, according to the official festival website. From early in the morning, and I mean 9am, the live music would start and the patrons were dancing. At the Matchmaker Bar in the town center there are said to be ‘official’ posters written in permanent marker of all colours, announcing when Willie Daly – resident matchmaker – will be available for consultations.
Everywhere we walked, men were happily trying to book us in for a later dance. After all, everyone only had three days, there was no time for timid disguises.
At breakfast we sat at a table with the self-proclaimed Tipperary Tarts, a group of friends who had left their husbands and tractor racing at home for a bit of madness. Don’t get me wrong – they weren’t looking to cheat on their spouse, just having a drink and dancing. Good clean fun. The only other thing I remember about this meal was the waiter bringing us an unreal amount of toast. I have never seen so much bread in my life.
When Lynne and I finally crawled back to our room around 1am, the same people we had seen cutting a rug before lunch were kneeling to catchy Irish tunes. It was just fantastic. I would honestly recommend this festival to everyone – young or old, couple or not. It’s a great time.
I could continue on our journey through the other Burren world; the time I unknowingly sat on ‘Moira’s seat’ in her pub in Dingle when we were watching rugby (and suddenly jumped out of it once I realized my grave mistake); meet Fungie, the bottlenose dolphin, on a boat tour; to be delighted to see that Dunmore East had barely changed over the years and still had all the charm I remembered; and spend a fortune on designer keychains, hats and other trinkets at Dublin’s Guinness factory; but my editor is already going to kill me when she sees the word count in this column.
The fact is, there simply aren’t enough words to describe the beauty of the Irish landscape, the characters you meet and the warmth of the welcome. You have to visit it by yourself.
Just two tips: Get used to cycling; and when you dance, put down your Smarties.