Happy St. Patrick's Day! A taste of Ireland from an Irish great grand-daughter

Topography of Ireland
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That’s “cheers” in Irish — pronounced slawn-tche. Hoping your day is full of craic — fun.

I’ve visited Ireland four times, and loved it, even once driving the entire circumference of the island with my Dad, chasing up and down its green hills and visiting Rathmullan, Co. Donegal — a seaside town on Lough Swilly where my great grandfather was the schoolteacher. Family lore had it that, after big storms, there’d be jellyfish on his front lawn. Yeah, right, I’d say — but there was only a narrow road between the seawall and his lawn. True.

We even visited his one-room schoolhouse and I saw his handwriting in the old ledgerbooks. The building was for sale and we fantasized, briefly, about buying it.

Landing in Shannon, Ireland’s western airport, means staring down at a patchwork quilt of every shade of green, tiny plots of land, each marked off with a stone wall. It’s magic. You drive on the left and the narrow, twisting roads, with high hedges and limited sightlines, is a real challenge, especially with jet lag. I went, alone, to follow two American women, one from San Antonio and one from D.C., at the annual September singles’ festival in Lisdoonvarna —  where men outnumber women about four to one — for The Washington Post, Ottawa Citizen and Dallas Morning News. It’s a hoot. I’ve never felt so alluring!

Dublin is terrific, but Galway City is fantastic — a college town with lots of great pubs, friendly and manageable. My Dad and I once spent an afternoon collecting mussels from Galway Bay, went home and made soup; for a while, he owned a house, built in 1789, just outside the town of Athenry — then, it cost barely more than my suburban New York apartment. I loved looking across the countryside through its wavy, 200-year-old windows.

Here are some of my Irish favorites:

Guinness. Yes! Dark, cool, creamy, distinctive, it’s probably Ireland’s best-known beer.

James Joyce. I am a faithless wretch, never having read his work, so he’s not technically one of my personal favorites — but you can’t leave him out! I have visited his home.

Luka Bloom, a singer-songwriter, I love his album The Acoustic Motorbike.

The Chieftains, founded in 1962, probably Ireland’s best-known band for traditional music.

The Aran Islands. The shaggy cows there are the exact shade of Guinness. There are three islands, reached by ferry from Galway, and filled with 15th. century churches and pre-historic ruins.

Colm Toibin. His latest, recent book, “Brooklyn: A Novel”, has received rave reviews. I’ve read his earlier work and loved it.

William Butler Yeats. You may already know some of his poetry’s lines off by heart — “Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams”.

Glen Hansard, winner of the 2008 Academy Award for “Falling Softly” his gorgeous song from the lovely 2007 film, shot in Dublin, “Once.” He also starred in one of my favorite films, The Commitments, from 1991, whose soundtrack is a must-own.

Films The Field, Waking Ned Devine, Ryan’s Daughter, which united the formidable talents of Robert Bolt and David Lean (who did Dr. Zhivago) and The Dead, set in Dublin in 1904, starring Angelica Huston and directed — his final film — by her father, from his wheelchair on oxygen, John Huston.

Grainne, (pronounced Grahn-ya), the lady pirate:

Grace O’Malley (also called Granuaile) was a famous pirate, seafarer, trader and chieftain in Ireland in the 1500’s. She was born in 1530 in County Mayo, Ireland and was the daughter of sea captain Owen O’Malley. As a young child, Grace always knew she wanted to be a sailor but as a female, she was discouraged repeatedly. Extremely upset when her father refused to take her on a sailing trip, legend has it Grace cut off all her hair and dressed in boy’s clothes to prove to her parents that she could handle the trip and live a seafarer’s life. Seeing this, her father and brother laughed aloud and nicknamed her “Grainne Mhaol” meaning “Bald Grace” (which is believed to have led to her nickname “Granuaile.”) Eventually, through her persistence, she was allowed to go to sea with her father and his fleet of ships.

As a child, Grace often sailed with her father on trading missions overseas. Once, upon returning from a trip to Spain, their ship was attacked by an English vessel. Grace she climbed up onto the sail rigging. Watching the battle from above, she noticed an English pirate sneaking up on her father, raising a dagger behind his back! The brave Granuaile leapt off of the rigging, through the air and onto the pirate’s back…. screaming all the while! The distraction this caused was enough for the O’Malleys to regain control of the ship and defeat the English pirates.

She spent her young life learning the ways of the sea and grew to be quite the sailor — eventually having her own fleet of ships. Her family had become wealthy mainly through fishing and trade, but in her later life, Grace took up piracy by taking on Turkish and Spanish pirate ships and even the English fleets. She grew her estate to include a fleet of ships as well as several islands and castles on the west coast of Ireland.

In her later years, Grace developed her reputation as a fearless leader through her efforts in battle along side her followers. Legend has it that Grace gave birth to one of her sons while out to sea. The very next day following the birth of the baby, the ship was attacked by Turkish pirates. Though exhausted from giving birth Grace grabbed a gun, went on deck and proceeded to rally her men against the Turks, forcing their retreat.

I’d love to hear some of yours…

6 thoughts on “Happy St. Patrick's Day! A taste of Ireland from an Irish great grand-daughter

  1. lizskoski

    I couldn’t resist…Ireland really is as magical as everyone says it is. I studied abroad in Dublin junior year of college and one story really encapsulates the entire experience. I was on the bus, attempting to find my way to the National Gallery of Ireland (a completely free art museum in Dublin that is a must see.) Confused over exactly where it was located I asked the woman sitting next to me. After trying to explain the exact side streets I would need to take and seeing my obvious confusion she just said (in that marvelous accent) “Let’s get off here, I’ll show you myself!” And just like that, a complete stranger helped a complete tourist find the museum! In all the cities I’ve visited (US and abroad) I’ve never seen that kind of hospitality repeated. Some more things to add to your list: seeing the wild Connemara ponies near Galway, the North side of Dublin over the Ha’Penny bridge, the famine statues at St. Stephen’s Green, the best St. Patrick’s Day celebration you can imagine, and just so many more. Such a great, unique place, unlike anywhere in the world.
    PS just want to mention that Marketa Irglova was also a singer on the beautiful song “Falling Slowly” from “Once.”

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks! Marketa was indeed terrific in the film and in the songs — I have, and love, the soundtrack. I loved that final crane shot through the window.

    The ponies are fun, the National Gallery gorgeous (I remember a great lunch there). It is hard to pick just a few things to love. I can’t wait to go back.

    What I loved most was just feeling Irish, seeing my surname on shops and trucks, and seeing how much the Irish enjoy and value lively conversation.

    One of my most powerful memories, of travel anywhere, was a journalists’ boozy Xmas luncheon in Dublin with a dear friend and many of her colleagues. It was utterly normal to ask people to “give us a song” and, as many did, I did, too. A little terrifying, but fun.

  3. Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh, Caitlin.

    Patrick Kavanagh
    A farmer from Iniskeen, County Monaghan, who wrote beautiful, sad poems: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/stony-grey-soil/

    James Connolly, eloquent socialist leader of the 1916 Easter Uprising. He was shot to death by a British firing squad while tied to a chair, already riddled with bullets from the uprising.

    The Waterboys
    Mike Scott was born in Scotland, but “Ireland is my heart,” he sings, and in 1988 he led his Irish bandmates to Spiddal House, in Galway, to record the album “Fisherman’s Blues.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HIil8k5QnFU

  4. john

    I spent 6 weeks there after grad school with my girl friend at the time a native of Dublin. At one point we took off for several weeks and drove about the country. I have many memories of this. For example, kissing The Blarney Stone was something I had no conception of before I did it and I was amazed that it’s not something you walk up and kiss, it’s this incredible backbend maneuver at least 60 feet high: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blarney_stone.png

    Then there was our encounter with the Poulnabrone Dolmen in County Claire: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poulnabrone_dolmen this was absolutely stunning to see first due to their age, but second because we just seemed to come upon them driving (on the left side) of the road. No fences, no real paths at the time, we just stopped the car and walked over the fields to get to them. I still remember the incredible winds that day and how soft the rains were. . .

    Finally, my favorite place is probably the town of Clifden in County Galway: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clifden. After a long day, finding a bed and breakfast that had this old metal tub with individual spigots for hot and cold water – is a memory that haunts me. One of the most romantic places I’ve ever been. They served bread fried in lard along with white pudding (a common white sausage) for breakfast. Wuff, that was a time. In subsequent years, I’ve been amazed to see Clifden appear on the little map you see when flying over Ireland. Perhaps it wasn’t as small as I remember it.

    Ah, Ireland. . . Thank you.

  5. Caitlin Kelly


    The Waterboys — LOVE the Waterboys and t’anks for reminding me. I practically broke a seat at the Beacon in NYC I was dancing so hard when I saw them there.

    I will look up this poet as well.

    Oh, and….U2!

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    John, these are lovely, visual memories. Thanks for sharing them! I’ve seen the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher, but don’t think I’ve seen the Dolmen.

    Six weeks is a fantastic amount of time to spend in any country (as I did in Spain), but, as you know, you can drive across Ireland in only three hours — so this must have given you such a great opportunity to really see it.

    I’d love to rent a house there for a while and roam about.

    Another powerful memory for me — three of them: trying to meet my Dad at the next door neighbor’s house and (!!!!) walking right into the electrified fence (in the dark) that kept his cows off our land. Ouch. Dad owned a bit of land with his house and and we went for a walk, picked fresh watercress from one of the streams, and went home and ate it for lunch. His lawn needed cutting — and he handed me (!) a bloody scythe. OMG. Heavy. Now I know tired Death must get…

    I felt such a powerful connection there to the land and to history.

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