Spirit of Ireland Essay:
When I pictured myself in Ireland, I pictured rock walls lining the landscape, crumbling stone castles, deep-green moss patties surrounding makeshift limestone sidewalks, and sheep farms galore. I arrived in the picturesque Burren to find that Ireland was everything I had expected it to be. I hadn’t wanted to believe or to expect that this cookie-cutter perfect, Americanized version of Ireland was all the country had to offer. As much as I wanted all the castles and the forests, I think some part of me had secretly been hoping that the rock walls would all be gone and the grass would be brown and sparse. A part of me just wanted to disprove the stereotypical idea of Ireland which had been instilled in me via American media, I wanted what I was afraid of. I hope I’m not misunderstood, I love the Irish landscape; The plush green grass, the uneven rock walls thick with hazel and holly, and the cool, crisp smell of the air after it rains – which, of course, is nearly every day. But when my first set of assumptions about Ireland turned out to be so incredibly true, it became all to easy for me to bring along all my other personal assumptions as well.
Americans often have a tendency to write Ireland off with one stereotype or another, and I am certainly no exception. We stick the entire country in a bottle and label it as “Land of Belligerent Drunks,” or “Forests of Magic and Faery Dust.” However, Ireland doesn’t fit in a bottle. I’ve met the drunks and I’ve seen the forests, I’ve smelt the whiskey and cigarette smoke and I’ve stood under a rainbow and been kissed by the rain. There is no single definition of the ‘Spirit of Ireland,’ for the people and the cities are as diverse as – if not more so than – the various fifty United States. Evening something as commonly stereotyped as Irish pub life can differ vastly; something which I have learned already.
Irish poet William Butler Yeats once said, “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t met yet.” I had taken Yeats’ idea with me from the start, doing all I could to integrate myself into Irish society; I wanted to be treated as a local rather than just another American tourist. But it came with a cost. I cut myself off from social media, limited communication with anyone back in The States, immersed myself in Irish culture, and found that strangers become friends while friends become strangers. Despite the difficulties I encountered, I persevered. I set out on my own to meet as many locals as I could, learn as much as I dared, and hopefully even disprove a stereotype or two along the way.
On my first night out in the bustling city of Galway, I ended up at a local pub called The King’s Head. Local musicians Jack and Dec were playing that evening and the atmosphere was buzzing with excitement. The sounds and smells of partially drunk college students flowed through the air, dimly lit by red lights. I detached from the group of Gustavus students whom had all clustered together in a corner of the pub and went off to mingle with some locals. I saw a small table in a corner of the pub with two young men who looked to be about my age, and I asked them if they had a minute to spare. They invited to sit me down and welcomed me warmly. I learned that their names were Brian and Eōin and that they were both sophomores at the university in Galway; within minutes we were acting like we known each other our entire lives.
When they inquired why I was staying in Ireland, I smiled shyly and told them I was studying photography and writing at The Burren College of Art. “The Burren!” Eōin exclaimed, “Eh, what’s the craic in The Burren? It’s all rock!” I laughed and attempted to explain how perfect The Burren landscape was for photography, but before I could finish my sentence Brian turned to Eōin and shook his head, “Feckin Americans!” I sighed in defeat and let them change the subject.
A half-hour or so into my newfound friendship, I left to inform my classmates where I’d been and would be the remainder of the evening. Upon my return, Brian and Eoin looked at me solemnly and told me with genuine concern that I was too innocent for Galway. I laughed and inquired what they meant as I lifted my Foster’s glass to my lips, “You left your drink, I coulda spiked your drink and here you are about to drink it again,” Eōin said with concern. My smile disappeared and I put my glass back on the table. As it turns out, a born and bred Irish man is very protective of women, and Brian and Eoin are true Irish men. They proceeded to walk me through various scenarios and give me tips to make sure that I would safe during the remainder of my trip. Eōin even had me add him on Facebook before I left so that I could inform Brian and him when I got back to my hostel, as some of my classmates I left the pub with had been drinking; they wanted to make sure we all got back safely. Despite my time with them being short, I learned an invaluable amount and I am very thankful to have met them both. Perhaps Irish pubs weren’t quite what I thought they were after all.
My second night in Galway I sought out the less tourist-geared places and found myself inside a tradition Irish music pub called Tig Coili’s. The pub was the smallest I’d seen thus far and was thick with local, middle-aged men. My friend and cottage-mate Amanda and I were not only the tourists in there, we were also the only females.
A man grabbed my arm and pulled me near him, his hand was clammy and the smell of Jameson emanated through his yellow and brown teeth, hitting my face in a hot, sticky cloud. “You’re lovely, I have a wife who would love to meet you!” I politely untangled my arm from his grip and asked if his wife would be here tonight, for I would surely love to meet her. His sunken in face went somber as he said, “Oh no, she won’t be around tonight. She left me you see…twenty-seven years ago.” He laughed like a madman and turned back to his table to find solace in his scratched up tumbler glass, half-filled with whiskey, as chills ran down my spine. I nodded politely and made my way closer to the bar, pushing through the loud-talking, singing, gossiping throngs of half-drunk men. When I reached the bar, an elderly man on my lefthand side gave me a genuine smile and stuck out his hand. He had a tuft of crazy, white hair sticking in all different directions and smelt of dollar-store cologne and stale cigarette smoke. “Tonight is your lucky night! D’ya wanna know why?” He didn’t wait for me to answer but took my right hand and greeted it with a sloppy wet kiss, “Because you met me!” I smiled and took my hand back, discreetly wiping it dry inside my coat pocket as I walked further back into the pub.
Amanda and I met three local Irish actors: Sean of Kerry, Seamus of Galway, and Bernerd of Cork. They seemed relatively friendly and we spent a good bit of time chatting casually with them towards the back of the pub. It only took about five minutes into our conversation, however, to realize we hadn’t chosen the best crowd. Sean suddenly looked at us coyly, saying, “Oy! You ever have a treesome?” He then began a stream of questions, ranging from: “Have you ever kissed anotha’ gal?” to, “Ever have a one-night stand? No? Would you want to?” Upon telling him that I have a boyfriend he informed me that, “It’s not cheating when you’re on another continent,” before winking at me and making my skin crawl. Three times throughout the evening, Bernerd touched me; His hand stroked up my thigh. I touched him too; My fist pounded his arm. Seamus, the most rational of the three, apologized several times for his friends’ behavior. However, he did nothing to stop it. We cut our night short and left the pub briskly, making sure that our new ‘friends’ stayed far behind us. I also learned that evening that, as with everywhere else in the world, not everyone you meet in Ireland can be trusted. While walking back to my hostel that night, I thought about all the rumors I’d heard and the movies I’d seen depicting perverted, drunk Irishmen and thought to myself, “Huh, I guess every rumor starts with a grain of truth; Or in this case, more like a saltshaker.”
On one of my last few days in Ballyvaughan, I went hiking on my own for a bit of fresh air and time alone. I trekked across slippery gray limestone and felt the soles of my hiking boots squish into the sopping wet moss patties in between. I found myself in the middle of an abandoned faery ring fort on the edge of a forest, a deep green mound surrounding me in a nearly perfect circle. I took a moment to lean back against a moss covered tree and soak in my surroundings. There I was, surrounded by fresh air and sunshine in the land of my dreams. I thought to myself, I have all the freedom in the world. Suddenly, I’m claustrophobic. Trapped by the shame of my own preconceived notions. I think back on my experiences of the past three weeks, the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met. An array of images flashed through my mind like lighting: Brian putting his arm around me in Galway, P.J. telling me stories in Doolin, and the wonderful people I’ve met at the three pubs I’ve visited in Ballyvaughan. I realized that I had found it easy enough to be a judgmental bitch towards my friends or classmates, hypocritically looking down on them whenever they inadvertently stereotyped an aspect of Ireland. Yet I had been doing the same all along. I made claims about hating stereotypes yet I did nothing but perpetuate them.
Although pub life is only a very small piece to the puzzle of Ireland, even in the pubs one can attain a very different sense of what Ireland is all about depending on where they go and who they meet. I know better now than to judge a country for its reputation, and I can only hope that others will do their best not to make this very mistake.
I spent my last free weekend in Ireland traveling to the stunning seaside city of Doolin. My last evening in the town, I decided to head out on my own to the pub next door to my hostel, McDermott’s Pub. It was a quiet night in a quiet town, and I sat down by the fireplace in a nearly empty section of the pub to sip hot chocolate and put my thoughts down into a journal. A few minutes in, I noticed an elderly man sitting up at the bar by himself, sipping his Guinness and looking down quietly. I gathered my things and asked if I could join him, and his face lit up with a genuine smile as he pulled a chair out for me. I soon learned that his name was P.J., short for Patrick Joseph, and that he was born and raised in Doolin. We sat by the bar and talked, just the two of us, for nearly three hours; oh how the time flew by! He told me about his wife and his plans for their soon upcoming fortieth wedding anniversary, his seven children and nine grandchildren, his forty-plus years spent as a ferry captain, and numerous bits and pieces of Irish history and folklore. As the hour struck past midnight, I finally bade him goodnight. He offered to pay for my drink, shook my hand and, with utmost sincerity in his eyes, thanked me for taking the time to talk with him that evening. P.J. is one the kindest, gentlest, most genuine people I have ever met and I am so unbelievably fortunate to have crossed paths with him that quiet evening.
A group of young men I had seen inside the pub were crowded outside the entrance as I made my way to leave. Upon seeing my approach, one of the men held the door open for me, smiled, and wished me a good night as I walked into the drizzling rain. As I walked away he called softly after me, his voice just more than a whisper, “I love you!” His friends guffawed around him and a slight smile played at the corner of my lips as I continued towards my hostel without looking back.
I’ve found that my wanderlust sets in heavier, the more I set out to satiate it; Dear Ireland, I’ll be back soon.
Natural Landscape Portfolio: “Shared Skies”