Summer 2009 "Postcards from Galway"
18 July 2009
Ireland welcomed us with warmth and sunshine, two very rare things for this country, according to the locals, even in the summer. But weather was of no importance to me – from the moment I decided to come for this program, I knew I wanted to immerse myself in everything Ireland come rain or come shine. With this mentality coupled with my love of languages, culture, and art history, my ears immediately caught the Irish accent: how they hold on to the “t” and “d”s a half second longer, the intonation, and certain phrases they would say such as “hi-ya” to say hello, “thanks a million,” and “grand.”
But I will not compare Ireland to home (Boston), because it would not be fair to either. Besides which, there are many places that have been "home" to me, albeit some only for a little while, so this is another opportunity to learn something new.
Galway, our home base here in Ireland, is exquisite. If you've seen Pride and Prejudice and loved the scenery, Galway – and the rest of the country – is similar. The air is clean, the water is clear, it's green everywhere, and the dogs run free without leashes and yet are so well behaved you cannot help but just stare at them in awe. The people are amazingly friendly – a welcome change from the usual iPod-wearing, walking-with-a-purpose crowd in Boston, of which I am a part. If you ever look lost and confused, even for a second, a local will stop what they are doing to point you in the right direction.
Churches (Catholic churches, at least) pepper this tiny town the way Dunkin Donuts can be found every 1/4 mile in the greater Boston area. And each of them – or at least the ones I’ve seen so far in our walking escapades – have a unique architecture and style to distinguish one from the other. But the crème de la crème is the Galway Cathedral. Gorgeous! And you would say this even if you’re not Catholic. You can spot its green domes from a mile away, and if you’re walking towards the city you know you’re going in the right direction if you see it getting closer.
And yes, we do walk a lot. This is definitely a walking city - we have walked everywhere so far, including a 3+ mile walk to Salthill (Galway’s Santa Monica Pier) against the wind. But it never gets old, and you get used to walking everywhere very quickly because there’s not a more efficient way to get around the city. Besides which, walking is a welcome exercise for those of us who do not have set gym regimen in their daily schedule.
Dublin on the other hand is Galway's noisier cousin 3 hours away. It's definitely a bigger city, and the crowds are massive – they come in hordes and they won't move for you, so you better learn to be assertive and push your way through the sidewalks. It is very reminiscent of New York City, actually.
Dublin – and Galway – are also reminiscent of the 80s in terms of the contemporary fashion (i.e. the young ‘uns). Yes, I'm talking neon-green/pink shirts and tights and leg warmers. Oh, and the mullets!!! It's definitely a place to visit for all its history: Trinity College and the Book of Kells, James Joyce, the door specially made for Louis XV (or XVI?) but he never came – history, art, and architecture I would gladly explore, but not a place I'd want to live in and stay for long. Deep down, I’m a small town girl who managed to end up halfway across the globe.
The Aran Islands is another sight to behold. It is a 30 minute ferry ride from Connemara (which is about 1 hour from Galway). However, for some of us, it was a grueling, nauseating 30 minute ride. I will spare you the details.
But Inishmore was lovely: population 800. They only had electricity about 30 years ago. The bank is open 2 days a week; and Wednesdays in the winter. Dun Aengus, which is on the island, is a fort made of rock (actually, they have walls made of rock – again, amazing!) some 20 minute walk UPHILL! Yes, I felt the burn! Looking down from the cliffs was beautiful – but no guardrails and the wind was picking up, so I didn't push it . . . I peeked, aimed my camera, and got the heck out of there! But it is absolutely beautiful, you had to sit back for a minute and just take it all in. Clearly, there is some Higher power out there . . .
And yes, I did get myself a sweater – wool sweater, which will supposedly get me through harsh Boston winters, and I believe them because it reeks of sheep. The best part – handmade by ol' gramma in the back, churning it like there's no tomorrow!
It goes without saying (and yet I will say it anyway) that to truly fully immerse oneself in this particular culture, is to spend a little time in pubs. I was worried about this part of my Ireland adventure because I’ve always thought of pubs as synonymous with loud, obnoxious drunks and brawls. But I soon found out that pubs here aren’t the exact functional equivalent of the pubs back home. Here, pubs are just pubs, and beer is just beer. That is, going to the pub and having a pint or two of beer is just routine. Shops close down around 5:30 in the afternoon – something very unusual for those used to the 24/7 Albertson’s and Sav-On’s – and everyone stops in at their favorite pub to have a pint or two with friends to unwind. Our favorite is a family owned, 20+ year old pub called Taaffes, where traditional Irish music is played daily. Our favorite part – the Monday night tin-whistle playing tap dancer. Every day a group of friends come together with whatever instrument they play, and play traditional music for the crowd of mostly locals. They don’t get paid; they’re just a group of friends who come out to play and unwind, and have good “craic” (fun).
In the end, it’s not much different here than what I grew up with. Halfway across the globe from here, in the Philippines, at about 5:30 pm, people come home from work and have a bottle of San Miguel beer with friends. They could have just gone through the worst day of their lives, but you will still hear loud roars of laughter with clinks of beer bottles. It’s just culture, it’s just routine, and I love it.
13 July 2009
My time here in Ireland over the last month has been incredible. Something that has been inescapable since I have been here is learning about and developing an appreciation and respect for how rich Ireland’s history and culture is. In terms of history, this is a country that has been inhabited for thousands of years and has gone through tremendous social, political, and economic challenges. From the infamous social divisions caused by religious differences, to the potato famine, to the country’s incredible struggles for political independence, Ireland’s history is certainly marked with its fair share of challenges.
For all the talk of “the luck of the Irish,” even a brief survey of Irish history will show you the Irish have been anything but lucky for a better part of their history. Certainly, Ireland has come a long way, particularly in recent years, in terms of pacifying the social divisions between Catholics and Protestants, solidifying itself as an independent and advanced industrial democracy, and in terms of economic development as a result of its years as the “Irish Tiger” during the 1990s. Although Ireland is one of the hardest hit countries in Europe during this current global economic recession, as probably any older Irish person would tell you, as bad as the times are now they pale in comparison to other periods in Ireland’s history. Moreover, they would probably also tell you that the Irish will endure through these tough times as they have through others and come out stronger and happier than ever, as it is the Irish way.
Notwithstanding Ireland’s tragic history, the other inescapable feature of Ireland is the vibrant, warm, and welcoming culture. Although Ireland is not a place where you would want to come for the weather, it is certainly a place where you would want to come for the people! The Irish are an amazing group of people and are very welcoming to Americans. For some reason Irish can spot an American from a mile away; however, unlike traveling in some other parts of the world, they are actually excited that you are here visiting their country and are more than happy to start up a conversation with you.
This is certainly so at the pubs, which are a core feature of Irish culture, particularly, here in Galway! Whether you are at one of the trendy tourist pubs in the Latin District, or at a “local” pub on the other side of Eyre Square (also known as JFK park, in honor of one of Ireland’s favorite American presidents), the people are friendly, the music is great (usually played live), and the beer is fresh. I often joke with my colleagues that I don’t think that people go home after work because in the evening the pubs are always packed – notwithstanding the day of the week! (After conducting an unofficial survey by speaking with several locals, my theory appears to be true.) Pubs truly are “public houses” where the community comes together every evening to relax, grab a pint, and appreciate the end of a hard day’s work.
So looking back on my month here in Ireland, I can say that I feel privileged to have been able to learn so much about Irish history and culture. Coming from Boston, with its significant population of Irish and those of Irish decent, I thought I had a decent understanding of the Irish people. To paraphrase Socrates, I know now that I really knew nothing. Fortunately, that is not the case now, and I look forward to the remainder of my time here on the Emerald Isle, to exploring other parts of the country, meeting more people, and taking full advantage of this incredible place with its extraordinary history, culture, and people.