Ireland was the third foreign country I ever visited, beaten only by a two-way trip on the Al-Can highway and a three-month adventure in the UK. I won a tour of the island in a London pub giveaway in 2002, and I was excited to see Ireland despite not knowing much about it.
With red hair and a love for beer and potatoes, I have always felt an affinity for the Irish. Like the Irish, my hair coloring comes from those pesky Vikings who spread the gene far and wide. However, although I was told growing up that I had Irish roots, after researching my family tree later in life I have discovered that such lineage is mostly a fabrication–the tree goes back through various parts of Britain but not its western island neighbor.
I read a lot of Celtic fantasy novels as a teenager. One that particularly stuck with me was Lion of Ireland by Morgan Llywelyn. It tells the tale of Brian Boru, a 10th-century Irish king who united the island under his rule. The book is filled with fantastical elements, complex female characters, and, of course, a dashing hero. I loved it.
Perhaps because I’m American and our world history is deplorable, or perhaps because I have the intelligence roughly comparable to a lemur, I somehow never realized Brian Boru was a real person.
One of the first stops on my Ireland tour is the Rock of Cashel, a medieval castle built on a rocky outcrop high above the surrounding green plains. It’s a dark, looming figure on the horizon. It is also from where, I learn to my utter shock, Brian Boru ruled for 25 years.
I am in complete disbelief that Brian Boru actually existed. Not just a character in a book a read years prior, but an actual person who lived and died on the same ground my tour bus rattled across. The experience of it is world-shattering, witnessing a fictional character suddenly step into the real world. If you’ve read The Eyre Affair, you can imagine what it felt like. (As a side note, I cannot recommend The Eyre Affair highly enough, but if it also turns out to be based on real events I will have a nervous breakdown.)
There are so many beautiful, interesting things to see in Ireland. None, however, affected me on the same visceral level as the Rock of Cashel. We only had about thirty minutes on our stop, and I feel like I didn’t get to see anything. I would love to go back.
Have you had a similar, world-shattering experience? I’d love to hear about it.
Ireland looks like a water painting.
It helps that the pictures I took my first time there predate (affordable) digital cameras and thus have muddled colors and dull lines, but, nevertheless, there’s something wildly ethereal about the Emerald Isle. Here are a few of my favorite images, taken in 2002.
One of my favorite memories from all my travels comes from an overnight visit to Cobh, Ireland. The small, seaport town is dominated by a huge church lording over the city from atop a hill, but beyond that I don’t know much about Cobh and am only there overnight.
My friend and I end up in a pub near our hostel. A piano man is there, his voice scratchy and indelicate, his fingers slamming down on the keys like an elephant. The room is completely packed. He rasps through Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” and everyone gets a bit weepy.
He makes playful banter throughout his set. At one point, he holds up his glass to the crowd. “What have I here?”
“Guinness!” everyone drunkenly responds.
He nods and chugs what remains until just an inch or so remains in his glass. He fills it with water. “And what have I now?”
We all glance around, confused.
A mischievous grin creeps across his face. “Budweiser!”
I will never look at Budweiser the same way again.