Tales from abroad: Ireland

The author toured extensively through Ireland while studying abroad, visiting the country's islands, castles, and countryside. (credit: Courtesy of Shannon Azzato Stephens) The author toured extensively through Ireland while studying abroad, visiting the country's islands, castles, and countryside. (credit: Courtesy of Shannon Azzato Stephens)

June 13, 2010: Thesis: Dublin is amazing. It’s a good thing I’m on a limited student visa; otherwise I would be tempted to never leave. It’s a very small city — only 1 million people (a quarter of Ireland’s total population), and its geography reflects that. I’ve heard that it’s possible to bike from one end to the other in about an hour. As such, the “sites” are very condensed, and there is a “one of each” aspect to the city that makes touring pretty simple: There is one castle in the city, one historic prison, one picturesque university campus, one river, one Guinness factory, and only a handful of major museums. There is no shortage of things to see and explore, however, as the real Ireland (as far as I can tell) exists in the places that you’ll find on every block: the pubs, the shops, and the houses. But mostly the pubs.

Much of what I’ve seen and heard so far can be traced back, in some way, to pub life. My introduction to the city was the following story, which a cab driver from the airport told me as an explanation of the many different colors of doors on the Georgian buildings:

“Once there was a man who got very drunk. He came home through the wrong door, to the wrong house, and got into the wrong bed with the wrong woman. It gave him quite a shock! So, he went and painted all the doors different colors so it would never happen again.”

June 14, 2010: It’s a fascinating time to be a foreigner in Ireland. Apart from the World Cup — the focus of my weekend — it’s a time of great political turmoil here: The recession has hit Ireland as hard, if not harder, than it has the United States. There are entire ghost towns of new houses that were never bought. On top of that is the wretched business with the Catholic Church and the cover-up of pedophilia in Irish parishes; according to my literature professor, there has been an incredible amount of cultural backlash, wherein people are questioning the very way the Church is run and in doing so, discovering the critiques made by feminists for decades.

June 23, 2010: The Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to.

IES, the study abroad program I’m with, organized the trip. We took an early morning train on Friday from Dublin to Killarney, and the entire time I kept humming the lullaby my grandmother used to sing: “way down in Killarney, many years ago...”

The countryside was lovely: weeds and heather, pitched hills on either side of the tracks, strange towering bushes full of Queen Anne’s Lace, chestnut horses curled in a field. Bushes were so full they looked windswept (and probably were); green fields were iced with yellow flowers that looked like pollen scattered on the grass. That archetypal Irish patchwork of green was everywhere, even on the mountains as they rose up toward the sky. I must have fallen asleep for a bit, because I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was the mountain range rolling out of the mist: periwinkle, rounded, but massive.

In Killarney, we took a boat ride to Ross Castle, dating back to the 1100s. The entire place was built with defense as its primary purpose, because anyone who was lucky enough to live there had plenty that could be stolen or otherwise pillaged. The doors were dual-planked with spikes on the outer sides; the central spiral staircase had “stumbling stairs” of different heights so that invading soldiers would trip while running up them. Even those who owned the castle in modern times did strange things to maintain control over it at the lowest cost: The phenomenon of roofless castles in Ireland came about because in the mid-1800s, any property with a roof was taxed. Land owners removed the roofs of castles they weren’t living in but wanted to retain.

We also visited the Blasket Islands. They are a collection of abandoned islands off the coast of the Dingle Peninsula, where living conditions were so harsh, and the population was so dwindled as a result, that the government evacuated them in 1953. It was a perfect example of the no-guardrails Irish approach to tourism: the term “abandoned island” really did apply. I found the odd shovel rusting in the fields, along with a small herd of wild donkeys (including a baby donkey that tried to eat my jeans) and sheep. I did some really amazing hiking there.

Our tour guide pointed out something called a “liss,” or a ring-fort in the earth. It’s essentially a circle of raised ground, from which faeries are supposed to come and go — it’s the entrance to the underworld. Faerie lore is considerably darker here than in America. In earlier times people believed that faeries came for young mothers and their babies shortly after a birth. They would bring the children into their underworld, and leave exact replicas of them in their place. These “changelings” were sickly and devilish and would waste away. It’s an explanation for cancer, postpartum depression, and a variety of other illnesses. In response to the changeling fear, people used to take turns guarding mothers and their newborns for a certain period of time after a birth. Later in life, faeries were also held responsible for children who vanished, or children who were killed in accidents on farms.

July 2, 2010: This weekend I went down to County Cork and kissed the Blarney stone. I couldn’t come all the way to Ireland and not kiss the Blarney stone! It’s something I can tick off my bucket list. It was actually a little scary to do. The stone is nestled into a part of the castle wall that’s separated from the floor, quite a few stories up. It’s like walking on a very high veranda with a beautiful view, and then lying down on the edge of that veranda to reach an outer wall with your mouth. There’s a man whose entire job is to sit on the edge and hold onto people so that they don’t fall. I almost didn’t do it, actually, because of the height; you lie on your back to kiss the stone (probably so that you can’t see all that’s below you), but you can see all the way down as you’re watching your friends do it.

Shannon Azzato Stephens | Special to The Tartan